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Proposed Denise's Law would force minors into drug detox

Denise Gerardi's father, John, left, mother, Carrie, center,

Denise Gerardi's father, John, left, mother, Carrie, center, and brother, Richie, right, hold a photo of her on Jan. 7, 2009. Denise died of an accidental heroin overdose at home on July 16, 2008, just weeks after she graduated from Sachem High School East in Farmingville. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Carrie Gerardi knew her daughter Denise was using heroin and tried everything she could to get her to stop: Grounding the 18-year-old. Taking her bedroom door off its hinges so she would always be visible. Checking her arms for telltale track marks.

Still, on July 16, 2008, at home in her bedroom just weeks after she graduated from Sachem High School East in Farmingville, Denise died of a heroin overdose.

>> VIDEO: Watch Sen. Brian Foley talk about Denise's Law at a press conference

Now the Gerardi family, of Holtsville, is the human face of Denise's Law, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Brian Foley to increase parental control over enrolling their minor kids in drug detox treatment.

Under family court law, children under 18 can check themselves out of detox programs, but Denise's Law would allow parents and guardians to obtain court orders and put their children back in the programs - whether they like it or not.

Janet Pfaeffle, of Farmingville, knows the struggle to help a child. Her son Christopher, 23, also a graduate of Sachem East, died on New Year's Day of a heroin overdose. He started his addiction as a teenager, and she could not get him to go to treatment. He went later on his own.

"My son has been into detox and treatment many times. I know the disease itself makes him resistant to treatment, and you have to force them," Pfaeffle said. "I do believe forcing is an answer, even if some of the professionals believe if they are going to get clean they have to want to get clean."

Officials at the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services said they are reviewing the bill and had no comment.

In the past, officials at the office have pointed to other ways of dealing with heroin abuse, including outpatient means. And some experts question how effective drug rehab can be unless the person being treated, whatever the age, does so voluntarily.

The bill, now awaiting a sponsor in the Assembly, also requires insurance companies to cover the cost of detox.

At a news conference Thursday at the high school in Farmingville with the Gerardis, Foley called heroin use among teenagers a "problem growing out of control" and promised his bill would help remove "road blocks" for families trying to help their kids.

Suffolk County statistics show that there have been at least 174 heroin-related deaths from 2006 to present, and one out of every 10 have been under 21.

The legislation, supported by substance abuse treatment groups and local educational associations, was crafted with input from the Sachem Parent Teacher Association and the AWARE committee, made up of parents, students, educators and local community leaders.

"I've wanted to do this for so long," Carrie Gerardi said of the bill. In the two years that her daughter went from smoking marijuana to shooting heroin, her daughter resisted any program. "She didn't want help," she said.

>> VIDEO: Watch Sen. Brian Foley talk about Denise's Law at a press conference

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