06/10/2010 02:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The New Face of Heroin

Imagine this: Your teenage daughter is, by all accounts, a good kid. She maintains a 3.6 grade point average. She's a member of the student council and plays on the softball team. You squabble over her messy room and her texting at the dinner table, but you know this is normal. You're not entirely sure about her new group of friends, but you don't let yourself worry too much. She's never been in trouble.

Then, one day, you notice track marks on her arm. Not my kid, you think. It's impossible.

But unfortunately, it isn't. Over the past few years, we as treatment professionals have heard this scenario all too often. At Phoenix House, we've seen a sharp rise in adolescent heroin use at our treatment programs in New York and elsewhere. Three years ago, we treated teens who primarily used pot, alcohol, PCP, or Ecstasy; almost none were addicted to heroin. Today, heroin is the drug of choice for 50 percent of our young clients, many who are just 13 to 15 years old.

This is evidence of a troubling trend across the nation. Although heroin use in general has declined or leveled off in many areas, the rate of heroin use among teens has increased dramatically--especially in the suburbs. And they're not the kids you'd expect. They're kids like Natalie Ciappa of Long Island, an honor student, cheerleader, and star of school plays. In 2008, days before graduation, her parents found her dead from a heroin overdose. That year, Natalie was one of 46 people in Nassau County to die as a result of heroin use, a 75 percent increase from the year before.

What's scary is that often, the progression to heroin takes place over a short period, sometimes as little as six months. Kids typically start with pills they find in their parents' medicine cabinets. Some participate in "pharm parties," where each person tosses prescription drugs they've found into a bowl and party-goers help themselves. Some begin "doctor-shopping" or buying drugs online. At some point, teens realize that it's easier, cheaper, and faster to get a $5- to $10-bag of heroin than $40 to $75 Oxycodone. Many start by snorting heroin and then, chasing a more intense high, they begin injecting.

This short window makes it difficult to recognize the problem before it becomes a life-changing addiction. And kids who are hooked on heroin don't always look or act the way you'd think a drug-addicted teen would. It's not uncommon for teens to continue doing well in school and keep up with extra-curricular activities. That's why--even for the most involved, responsible parent--a child's addiction may not be apparent until the tell-tale track marks appear.

When this happens, parents must recognize two hard-to-swallow truths about their teen's substance abuse: They didn't cause it and they can't cure it. What they can do is to support their child's recovery in every way possible--starting with getting them into a comprehensive treatment program. Sadly, this isn't always easy. In many cases, families must pay out of pocket or the teen must be involved with the criminal justice system in order to receive treatment. This has led some parents--like Kelly B., whose son Kevin is now in treatment at our Long Island Academy and who recently appeared on Geraldo At Large--to turn their kids over to the authorities in order to get them help.

While we can't fix the system, we can ensure that the kids we treat get the care they need while they're with us. Our adolescent programs, which offer educational services, collaborative services with criminal justice, and provide support to families and siblings, are not fully covered by government grants. On Long Island, an area that has been hard-hit by the heroin epidemic, a considerable portion of our operating costs is covered by individual donations. That's why, each year, we host our summer party--to honor these kids and their recovery and to raise funds so that our programs can continue to help them get their lives back on track. I hope you'll join us in the Hamptons on June 26 to support these young people who deserve a second chance.