STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

A decade in, more than 3,000 dead. When will Michigan deal with its opiate drug epidemic?

courtesy of Mary DeBoer.
Mary DeBoer, with her son Matthew McKinney. Matt was one of the earliest victims of Michigan's opiate epidemic. Since his death in late 2004, more than 3,000 others have died in Michigan alone.

This is the first part in our documentary, The Hidden Epidemic. You can hear the full documentary on Michigan Radio on Thursday, July 16th at 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. Or, subscribe to the State of Opportunity podcast on iTunes to hear each part as it’s released.

Mary DeBoer still remembers how it felt in the winter of 2004.

“Everything was fine,” she tells me, sitting at her kitchen table as the sun goes down behind her. “There was no threat or scariness that something was imminent, that something was going to happen.”

She remembers sitting at this same table, every night for family dinner. Every night at 6 o’clock sharp. No matter what else was going on, Mary, her husband and her three children would sit down here for dinner. Until their last night together, on December 14th, 2004.

“Funny thing,” she says, recalling that night. “We were eating dinner and I had made French dips and I ran out of roast beef, so, like three of them I made with ham instead of with roast beef. And Matt got one with ham, and just was like, ‘Are you serious, mom?’ And he’s throwing a - not throwing a fit, but being funny about this French dip that wasn’t French dip.”

Matt was 17 years old and still in high school. He loved animals. He wrote poetry. He played video games. He listened to Eminem and 50 Cent. He had a part-time job. He was a kid. He’d had his problems, but on this evening, as he gave his mom a hard time over ham sandwiches, things were good.

Mary says after dinner, she cleaned up the kitchen and sat down.

“Matt headed downstairs to do some homework,” she says. “We were sitting in the front room, and I saw Chris’ car go past.”

Chris Perrin was a friend of Matt’s. A friend who Mary thought of as a bad influence. A friend she didn’t really want her son hanging around.

“’That’s kind of different, that’s kind of weird,’” she recalls thinking. “So, I immediately went downstairs, and Matt was gone.”

That was the last time Mary DeBoer saw her son alive.

"He was Matthew Lloyd McKinney. He was my baby. Heroin doesn't define who he is just because he died from it."

He was found the next morning, in a car, with his sleeve rolled up and a needle mark on his arm. The medical examiner declared it a heroin overdose.

There were news stories and an investigation and a trial. There were memorials, and awkward encounters at the grocery store with people who had no idea what to say.

Over the years, those things faded. And still, Mary DeBoer lives with her loss. The pain hasn’t faded.

“Every day, he’s the first thing I think of when I wake up, and the last thing I think of at night,” she says. “And it’s 10 years later.”

A warning sign, missed

I promised Mary DeBoer there was a reason to bring this all back up again.

I’m just the latest reporter to find her, and ask her to share her story. After her son died, reporters showed up in her driveway. They hounded her family. She saw the stories on the news, always defining him in one way only.

“Matt was a person,” she tells me. “Matt was not heroin. Matt was Matt. He was Matthew Lloyd McKinney. He was my baby. Heroin doesn’t define who he is just because he died from it.”

But 10 years on, Matt’s story has taken on new meaning. His death wasn’t just a tragedy. It was a warning sign. A warning sign that almost everyone missed.  

In the months after Matthew McKinney’s death, police learned a great deal about heroin use in the community where McKinney lived. They determined that, in just that one town – Grandville, a suburb of Grand Rapids – 50 kids or more had become addicted to heroin. Nearly all of them started on it the same way: First, they experimented at parties with prescription painkillers, like Vicodin and Oxycontin. When they developed an addiction, and they couldn’t maintain the addiction with expensive prescription drugs, they looked for a cheaper alternative that gave them the same high. It was heroin.

Grandville was one of the first communities in Michigan where this problem popped up. Matthew McKinney was one of the first victims. But he wasn’t the last.

Today, more people are killed by drug overdoses than car accidents.
Credit Carolyn Gearig / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Today, more people are killed by drug overdoses than car accidents.

In the years since, the Centers for Disease Control declared that addiction to prescription drugs had become an epidemic. In 2009, there were more deaths from drug overdoses in the U.S. than from car accidents. The numbers have only gone up since then.

In Michigan, more than three thousand people are dead from these drugs since 2005.

Imagine if it was anything else that killed them, anything other than drugs. A deadly virus. A chemical spill. How would the response have been different?

"It just spread like wildfire."

Matthew McKinney was born with a broken heart. It was a defect, called Tetralogy of Fallot. When he was three months old, his mom found him in the nursery, blue. She thought he was gone. He was rushed to Ann Arbor for surgery.

For the rest of his life, he carried a scar on his chest, a constant reminder that he was not like other kids.

“We kept trying to tell him, ‘Well, that’s your badge of courage,’” DeBoer says. “Don’t be ashamed of that. That’s your badge of courage, you can do anything you want.”

But he couldn’t, not really. Mary says Matt was into sports. But, unlike other friends at school, he couldn’t play on teams. His heart couldn’t handle it. So he found friends who were into other things.

“ … stealing, smoking pot,” says one of Matt’s childhood friends, Jason. “And that just led on to other things.”

Jason knew Matt since elementary school, back when they rode BMX bikes all over town, stayed up late and played video games.

"We just shared a lot of laughs," he says. "He’s a great person to be around. Always had my back."

Matt was always a good kid. But that started to change around middle school.

Matt’s mom says by the time he was 15, she felt helpless to stop him.

"He would sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and be gone ... He had an upstairs bedroom, and I just wanted to put a lock on it."

“He would sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and be gone. And I can remember asking a police officer one time – we didn’t even know he was gone – and I said, ‘Can I put a lock on his door?’ He had an upstairs bedroom, and I just wanted to put a lock on it. And [the police officer] said, ‘If you do that ma’am, we’ll see you in court for child abuse.”

Things got worse from there.

Eventually, DeBoer realized her son had an addiction problem, with alcohol. In the summer of 2004, she sent him to an addiction center for teens in Minnesota.

But while he was away, his friend told me another problem was growing among his group of friends.

“I think they were doing Oxycontin … Vicodin,” Jason says. “And I don’t know how, it just spread like wildfire.”

Vicodin and Oxycontin are opiates. Same as heroin. This kind of drug is powerfully addictive. Quitting can cause a painful withdrawal that can last weeks.

So when the pills in the medicine cabinet ran out, the kids in Grandville could try to keep getting them in other ways, which were expensive and tricky, or they could switch to heroin, which was cheaper, and sometimes, easier to get.

“When I was a junior, I knew like a lot of people were doing heroin,” Jason tells me.

“Like, how many people?” I ask.

“Oh, a lot,” he says. “Just a big ‘ol group of them. There’s some to this day that are using.”

To get a better sense of how widespread this was during 2004, I sat down with Ray Beckering, an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan. Beckering prosecuted the legal cases that came out of the heroin outbreak in Grandville.

He says law enforcement first learned about the problem when parents started calling the DEA offices in Grand Rapids, telling agents their children, most of whom were between 16 and 22 years old, had become addicted to heroin.

“In the various investigations that occurred in 2004 and 2005,” Beckering told me, “I would say DEA and the U.S. Attorney’s investigated almost up to 48 or 50 different individuals who’d become addicted to heroin.”

“That’s 50 that we know of?” I asked. “So that’s a minimum?”

“That’s right,” Beckering said. “Those are the people that we actually interviewed in these cases.”

When I first heard this number, I didn’t believe it. No way a group of 50 kids from one school gets addicted to heroin. That just doesn’t happen.

But not only did it happen in Grandville in 2004, in the years since, it’s happened many more times. It’s not even that rare.

“It’s just so sad,” says Mary DeBoer. “I belong to a group, it’s called [The] Compassionate Friends ... and every day there’s a new [heroin overdose death] on there. Every day."

Drug deaths in Michigan.
Credit Carolyn Gearig / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Drug deaths in Michigan.

The deadliest drug epidemic

From 2010 to 2013, the death rate from heroin overdoses nearly tripled in the United States. Michigan has been one of the hardest hit states in the overall epidemic involving opiates.  

And we’re used to hearing about drug epidemics in the United States that come and go. But this one is different, in part because it’s claimed many more lives than previous epidemics, like the crack epidemic in the 1980s.

But this one’s also different in how it got started.

This drug epidemic started, not on the streets, but in doctor’s offices.

William Morrone is a doctor who does addiction counseling in the thumb area. He also serves as a deputy county medical examiner, so he sees the effects of drug overdose up close.

He traces the start of the opiate epidemic to a single policy put in place by what was then called the Joint Commission on Hospital Accreditation around 2000. JCAHO pushed hospitals and doctors to start tracking patients’ pain levels as a “fifth vital sign.”

You may be aware of when this happened. Doctors and nurses started asking patients to rate their pain on a scale from 1 to 10. The hospitals expected those numbers to go down.

Morrone says the problem is doctors didn’t actually get trained on dealing with chronic pain. But they did have access to strong new pain-relievers - Oxycontin and Vicodin. Prescriptions for these drugs shot up like crazy.

“We’re talking about a problem where certified medical doctors are actually killing people,” I said to Morrone.

His response: “We’re talking about certified medical doctors are maximizing their profits and are not in tune with the ethical and moral standards, ‘At first, do no harm.’

There’s a direct connection between the increase in pain killer prescriptions and the use of heroin across the U.S.

In the case of the kids who became addicted to heroin in Grandville in 2004, that connection was known.

But still, this wasn’t treated as a public health crisis in Grandville. It wasn’t treated as an outbreak. It was dealt with mainly in one way only: as a crime.

Tomorrow, we’ll bring you the story of how that turned out.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.