'There's Too Much Silence': One Woman's Quest to End the Heroin Overdose Crisis

click to enlarge RJ and his son - Courtesy of Camelia Carter
Courtesy of Camelia Carter
RJ and his son
Camelia Carter's petition seeking a state of emergency in Ohio is picking up traction; thousands of signatures have piled up in just a few days. Her goal: to trigger an all-in flood of public funding to confront the growing heroin and opiate overdose epidemic in the state. 

When I meet Carter at a westside Chipotle, she's wearing the ashes of her son, RJ Parker, in a small vial around her neck. She disregards my outstretched hand and zeroes in for a hug. Since her son's death, Carter tells me, she's given 1,715 hugs. She pulls out her phone and records the latest data point.

RJ Parker overdosed on a combination of heroin, methamphetamines, fentanyl and other drugs May 29. Since then, Carter has devoted every waking second to raising awareness of the public health crisis and networking with local, state and federal leaders to throw some solutions on the table.

It's a mission that was unexpectedly foisted upon her, but it's one that she's intent on seeing through. The heroin overdose epidemic rests too closely to her immediate family, and, even aside from the finality of death, the pain that stems from addiction is too brutish to ignore any longer. 

During the three weeks prior to Parker's death, he had been missing. His mother searched for him, as she had done so many times in the past. A statewide alert was issued by a Fairview Park police officer. No dice; Carter couldn't track any leads on her son's whereabouts until the day before his death. He overdosed on that day, too.

During the June 4 memorial, suddenly, a vast array of Parker's friends began telling Carter that he had been in and out of various local hospitals, overdosing at this person's house or that person's apartment. She was shocked with how easily she could have helped him, had a few of his friends simply spoken up. "They came out of the woodwork, filled with grief and remorse," Carter says. "There's too much silence."

Her petition now is picking up thousands of interested people's signatures, and public conversations about the opiate crisis are slowly crawling into regular discourse. It's not enough, though, Carter argues.

Here's what she envisions behind the state of emergency: When a heroin addict lands in a hospital after overdosing, the "Parker Resolution" will be invoked. That person will then be held for 90 days, during which time treatment will be offered and friends and family will be insulated from the sensitive process. She hopes that an increase in funding will allow more treatment facilities to open in the state's most vulnerable areas, like Cleveland.

Right now, addicts are left drifting across waiting lists for detox facilities. "There's no room at the inn," Carter says. "And as soon as they get there, the majority of places have dope in them." (She acknowledges that places like Julie Adams House, Ed Keating Center and Laura's Home are "great places.")

"Until a state of emergency is declared, I will not stop," Carter says. "I will not go away." In support of the petition, Carter started No More Heroin

Before we wrap the interview, Carter invites me to join her in an experiment. "Follow me," she says. She grabs a handful of business cards that describe the story of her son's death and she approaches each person in the restaurant, asking if they know anyone who's using heroin. Sure enough, the first woman she asks says that she does. Others echo the sentiment.

"That's what I do all day, everyday," Carter says.

And so she continues, carrying the burden of her son's death and the hope of countless others before her.

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Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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