Sherry Ajluni had no idea what was really going on.
She and her husband had been involved in their children’s lives, coaching youth sports, attending church and talking to them about serious subjects such as sex and drugs — or as much as they knew about them.
The Forsyth County parents suspected something was wrong with their two oldest sons, but the reality was far worse than anything they could have imagined.
“Our two babies that were afraid of blood tests were using heroin,” she said. “We caught the kids looking messed up and they kept saying they were just smoking pot. We knew better, but we had no idea what it was.”
The parents discovered the truth in 2007 and a difficult battle against addiction began for the whole family.
Ajluni shared their story Tuesday night with an attentive crowd of about 500 during the first Forsyth County Drug Summit. Held at the Lanier Technical College Forsyth Conference Center, the event was created to inform parents about youth drug problems and spark a coalition to address the issue.
Forsyth County Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills began organizing the event after she heard a recurring theme at local board meetings and in the community — drugs are here, and young people are using them.
Mills had no idea how many people would show up, so she was floored with the turnout.
“This host of people shows how much you care,” she told the gathering. “How much you care about your children. How much you care about your community. How you’re supportive of this … We hope that this is just the first step.”
For Ajluni, many steps followed after she and her husband learned of their sons’ heroin habit. The boys went in and out of rehab. They stole from their parents for drug money. They chose to live on the streets.
Her oldest son finally got clean in 2010. He wanted to teach history in high school and guide kids at risk of falling into his trap. He went to college.
Then, he got caught shoplifting, she said. With his criminal history, he knew he would be going to jail for a long time. He was missing for three days. In 2011, her oldest son had taken his own life, leaving a note that he didn’t want to hurt the family anymore.
“I pray you never experience any of this, and that’s why I’m here telling you my story,” Ajluni said.
Ajluni followed presentations on youth drug issues from local law enforcement and judges, and an inspirational keynote speech from Atlanta Braves legend John Smoltz.
Smoltz, though never directly affected by drugs, discussed the importance of fighting the battle against them for children, who are exposed to so many dangerous paths.
“I hope [this night] changes your philosophy to not sit still, not to sit patiently, not to sit idle, but to be able to do something in your community, in your school, in your county,” Smoltz said.
Sheriff Duane Piper praised the community meeting, which he said was “long overdue.” In the past two years, Piper said the county has lost 19 people to drug overdoses, of which 13 were from opiates like heroin.
The agency has seen the number of heroin arrests multiply five times this year from 2012, he said, and the average amount of the drug on each person has doubled.
An arrest may save a life temporarily while the person is behind bars, he said, but it isn’t the answer.
“We need to stop it before that,” Piper said. “The solution is getting involved with your kids.”
Forsyth County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Bagley sees people who have been arrested for drugs and those whose families have been ripped apart from use. He’s also seen 236 get help by graduating from the drug court program.
Drug court is “an alternative to traditional sentencing” that requires weekly visits with the judge, drug tests and counseling from medical professionals, Bagley said.
Participants are held accountable for their actions continually and receive sanctions when they violate their probation and use drugs, such as jail time.
The program has proved effective, with about a 13 percent recidivism rate, or number of graduates rearrested.
In Juvenile Court, Judge Russell Jackson said he sends participants in his substance abuse court to see what happens to the adults in Bagley’s program, should they continue that path.
Jackson reminded parents that they have the most power in their children’s lives. But if they need help, it’s available through many resources, including Juvenile Court without an arrest.
“Do something while you can do something,” he said. “Don’t’ be afraid.”
Brad Baker, an interventionist, sees families in the throes of addiction, and he always hears that parents wish they could have taken action when their kids were younger. Typically, families go through denial, reasoning and control phases before seeking help.
There’s no denying the drug problems here, he said. His Bradley Intervention Center has helped 20 families — most for alcohol or heroin — this month alone.
Parents may think their kids are just drinking or smoking pot, he said, but these lead developing minds down the wrong path. Also, the marijuana of today “isn’t your dad’s pot.” It’s often cut with other substances and far more potent.
Parents who see a problem head into the control phase, wanting to instill curfews or take away privileges. But the only thing that really works is for parents to know their children well. That way, they can tell when something is wrong.
Baker also challenged the attendees to remove the stigma of drug abuse in the community by talking about the problems.
Daniel Krasner, the night’s final speaker, works to help families find a solution for recovery from addiction. He knows all too well the struggles families go through.
Krasner, 26, became addicted to oxycodone, a prescription painkiller at 16. The Cobb County man said he came from a typical area family. He had many privileges and no responsibilities besides school.
He started using marijuana and drinking at 14, taking pills and cocaine while he skipped school at 15 and started injecting heroin by 17.
Krasner had done six stints in rehab by the time he was a senior in high school. In 2005, he woke up after eight days of detoxing in jail and, with a clear head, scared of being behind bars.
He agreed to a seventh treatment and drug court just to get out of the cell. On the way there, he asked his dad why he was spending more money for rehab.
“What he said to me was, ‘I want to make sure I did everything I could for you as a parent before you die,’” Krasner recalled.
Drug court, he said, saved his life. He attended the weekly meetings in the local program near the treatment facility in Mississippi, and he worked through a 12-step program with a counselor.
Krasner finished high school and got a part-time job. He studied, took the ACT and got a full college scholarship.
He made friends with other students in recovery. He began helping others work to get sober. He got his criminal charges dropped for completing drug court.
Then in 2008, he learned his sister had died of a drug overdose. To his surprise, Krasner didn’t relapse. He found strength in helping his parents plan the funeral and get through the difficult time.
Now, Krasner has studied and works in collegiate recovery programs, which allow a place for addicts to reform their lives while getting an education.
His story shows that there is hope, said Forsyth County School Superintendent Buster Evans, who wrapped up the evening’s speeches. In thanking attendees, Evans also reminded them to watch how their children spend their resources. It just might save lives.