By Kristine Guerra October 28
When police officers found Erika Hurt, she was sitting in the driver’s seat of her car, still holding a syringe in her left hand.
Her mouth was open and her head was tilted back.
And her 10-month-old son was restrained in a car seat in the back, according to police.
The car was parked outside a Dollar General store in rural Indiana on Saturday afternoon when someone called 911 after noticing that the woman behind the wheel was unconscious.
Police in the town of Hope believe the 25-year-old mother had overdosed on heroin.
Matthew Tallent, the town marshal, said Hurt regained consciousness after she was given two doses of Narcan, which reverses opioid overdoses in emergency situations.
The incident in Hope, about 45 miles southeast of downtown Indianapolis, happened less than two months after authorities in Ohio stopped a car and found a man and a woman barely conscious in the front seats. The woman’s 4-year-old grandson sat in the back seat.
A disturbing photo of the scene — the driver with his head tilted back, the woman slumped across the passenger seat, and the boy staring at what’s in front of him — spread like wildfire.
So, too, has the photo of Hurt.
Such incidents are becoming the “new norm” for drug users, Tallent told the Indianapolis Star.
“They’re traveling to other places because they don’t want to be caught by someone that disapproves of their drug abuse,” the marshal explained to The Washington Post.
Brian Allen, public safety director for East Liverpool, the Ohio city where the man and the woman overdosed, agreed. The explanation as to why some choose to take drugs while in public is simple, he said: They’re more likely to survive.
“If they overdose in their home, the odds of them dying is much greater,” Allen said. “No one can see them, and no one can get to them.”
Tallent said he knows of several instances involving people who injected themselves with heroin while in public.
Allen said he sees similar incidents at least once a day, many of them involving adults who overdosed in their cars while children in their custody sat in the back.
Shortly after the East Liverpool overdose, a grandmother in Elyria, Ohio, about 120 miles away, was found passed out while her pickup truck was running at a gas station, according to ABC affiliate WEWS-TV. The woman’s 8-month-old grandson was in the back, without a car seat. First responders had to break the passenger side window to put the truck in park, the station reported.
More recently, on Tuesday afternoon, a Michigan woman was found unconscious in her pickup truck at a gas station in Detroit, according to WJBK-TV. Two young children, ages 2 and 4, were in the back. The woman was “down to about two breaths a minute,” a paramedic told the Fox affiliate.
On the same day, a Kentucky high school teacher was charged with driving under the influence after he was found unconscious in a crashed vehicle.
In all instances, the unconscious people were revived with Narcan, a lifesaving medication now used by many law enforcement agencies across the country.
Nationwide, opioids such as heroin and prescription pain relievers killed more than 28,000 people in 2014, more than any year on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least half of all deaths from an opioid overdose involved a prescription drug, the CDC said, adding that the number of overdose deaths involving opioids has nearly quadrupled nationwide since 1999.
Fourteen states, including Indiana and Ohio, had significant increases in drug-related deaths from 2013 to 2014, according to the CDC.
Behind the grim statistics are haunting scenes of overdosed victims — and the children affected by their parents’ addictions.
Last month, a Family Dollar store employee in Massachusetts recorded a toddler in pink pajamas crying and pulling on her unconscious mother, who had overdosed and collapsed in the toy aisle.
The mother, who survived, was charged with child endangerment. Her daughter was placed under the care of child protective services.
A photo of a Birmingham, Ala., police officer comforting a 1-month-old girl in a tiny purple gingham dress raced around the Internet after her father died of an apparent drug overdose and her mother was found near death.
The officer in the picture, Michelle Burton, told The Post about the moment that night that saddened her the most. The couple’s 7-year-old daughter asked the officer to sign her homework so that she could turn it in at school the next day.
“That broke my heart,” Burton said. “She said, ‘I did my work.’ She pulled it out and showed it to us. It was math homework — ‘Which number is greater? Which number is odd or even?’ … I told her, ‘Sweetie, you probably won’t have to go to school tomorrow. … But where you’re going is going to have everything you need.’ ”
She added: “It was horrible. It was a very sad situation.”
In the East Liverpool incident, city officials faced criticism for releasing the photo of the overdosed adults and the child.
Someone had snapped a photo of the gruesome scene, and the city posted it on Facebook “to show the other side of this horrible drug.” Officials defended that decision, saying the public needs to see what health officials and emergency responders deal with “on a daily basis.”
“We feel the need to be a voice for the children caught up in this horrible mess,” the city wrote in a Facebook post. “This child can’t speak for himself but we are hopeful his story can convince another use to think twice about injecting this poison while having a child in their custody.”
Weeks later, in northeast Ohio, a recovering addict, Brenden Clark, delivered some devastating news to his 8-year-old son.
“Mommy died last night,” Clark said. “Okay?”
“What do you mean? My mom?” his child said.
“Yes,” Clark said.
“How!” the boy cried out.
“From drugs,” Clark said.
Clark posted video of the heart-wrenching discussion on Facebook, where it has been viewed more than 35 million times.
Just like that, in an instant, the 8-year-old boy became the sobbing face of the collateral damage from the nation’s opioid epidemic, which claims about 78 lives each day, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leaving many children without a parent.
In the Indiana incident, the mother survived.
Hurt was arrested after she was released from a hospital. She is charged with possession of paraphernalia, neglect of a dependent and violation of her probation in another drug-related conviction.
Her mother, Jami Smith, told Fox affiliate WXIN that Hope officials never should have made her daughter’s overdose photo public.
Tallent, the town marshal, said he never intended to embarrass or shame Hurt. Instead, he said, he wanted the photo to serve as an “educational tool, because I want people to see what this drug is doing.”
But some experts in drug addiction and policing said releasing such images may not be an effective deterrent.
Patty McCarthy Metcalf of Faces & Voices of Recovery, a national advocacy group, told The Post’s Tom Jackman that “what helps is helping people get help. Helping people see they can recover. What doesn’t work is public shaming. It just reinforces the negative public perception we’re trying to eliminate. Stigma is one of the major reasons people don’t get help when they need it.”
Adam Brooks of the Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia told Jackman that “publishing photos of unconscious individuals regardless of the circumstance is an insensitive and demoralizing approach to teach anyone a ‘lesson.’
“People struggling with addiction are dealing with a serious, chronic health condition that can’t be curbed through shaming. Would we post a photo of someone suffering a diabetic coma because they didn’t take their medication? Absolutely not.”
Hurt had recently gone through rehab before her overdose in Hope, her mother told WXIN.
“Heroin is the devil,” Smith said.
The toddler is now in the custody of his grandmother, according to Tallent, the Hope marshal.
“It’s a sad reality that she did this — and put her son in danger on top of that,” he said.
This post has been updated.
Lindsey Bever, Amy B. Wang and Cleve R. Wootson contributed to this article.