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This grieving family wants pharmaceutical companies held accountable for opioid deaths

An estimated 400,000 Americans have died as a result of opioid use. But grieving families say the national response to the health crisis is inadequate. In her coverage of the epidemic, Associated Press reporter Claire Galofaro profiled Cheryl Juaire, who lost her son to a heroin overdose in 2011. Galofaro and Juaire talk to William Brangham about how they are trying to increase opioid awareness.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    We continue our coverage of the opioid crisis that's touched so much of the country.

    Tonight, William Brangham looks at the frustration and anger felt by family survivors who say they are not satisfied with the national response.

    It's part of our periodic series America Addicted.

  • William Brangham:

    The death toll from opioids is much higher than many Americans realize. It truly is a public health epidemic.

    Estimates are that more than 400,000 Americans have died since the crisis began. In 2017 alone, more than 47,000 people died of an overdose.

    But among the grieving mothers and fathers who are living this crisis every day, there's a growing sense that the epidemic isn't being taken seriously enough. That was the focus of a recent series by the Associated Press called "The Left Behind."

    It featured many of the parents who are now burying their children at an unprecedented rate in modern American history.

    As one mom in the series put it, "Where is the outrage for us?"

    We're going to talk about that tonight.

    Claire Galofaro is one of the reporters on that series, and she's been covering this epidemic nationally for the Associated Press. And Cheryl Juaire is one of those parents. Her 23-year-old son, Corey, died of a heroin overdose in 2011. Ever since, she's led a group of mothers working to call attention to this crisis to reform addiction treatment and to pursue action against the drug-makers.

    Welcome to you both.

    Claire Galofaro, I would like to start with you first.

    In your series, you really documented this growing sense among parents all over the country that they feel that the country has kind of moved on from this crisis. Could you just give us a sense of the reporting, what you have found?

  • Claire Galofaro:

    Sure. Thank you for having us on, William. I think it's a really important story.

    You know, I think one father who is actually in Cheryl's group told me a story that he thinks sort of symbolizes this growing sense of frustration. He was on a stage at a rally that was intended to kind of end the stigma surrounding addiction. He had buried his own son.

    And he looked out over the crowd and he recognized everyone. He was like, oh, there's Joe's mom, there's Kim's father.

    And he realized that they were all parents of other people who had also died from opiate overdoses. And he thought, you know, we already know this. We don't need to learn in lesson. We already learned it the hard way. Where is everyone else?

    And that was sort of the sense of frustration I picked up from so many parents, that this is — that this crisis is being sort of largely overlooked by the general population. People are aware of it, but they're not angry about it in a way that's really commiserate with the scope of what we're facing today.

    A lot of people have described it to me as sort of what we experienced in the 1980s and '90s when we faced the AIDS epidemic. And that disease, like this one, really impacted very stigmatized people. It killed by the tens of thousands, before an organized, activist group, ACT UP, really started making a lot of noise, made people angry enough to demand that the government, the medical community invest the tens of billions of dollars required to really turn back the tide.

    And, you know, I think most public health experts would tell you that what we're facing today is just as daunting as that epidemic was then.

  • William Brangham:

    Cheryl, again, I don't know how to express how sorry I am for what you have been through, and it's remarkable what you have done since that tragedy affected your family and the loss of your son.

    I'm curious. Claire is describing this sense of outrage that parents feel. Is that accurate? Is that how you feel?

  • Cheryl Juaire:

    That's accurate.

    When I started to group Team Sharing, we were inviting in one mother and one father after another. And day after day, I would hear stories of their children and how they died.

    And most of them started with, as we know, in this epidemic, OxyContin, from a surgery of some sort. And they were outraged. And they just don't know what to do with it, because nobody's listening.

  • William Brangham:

    And what is it that you — if you have an opportunity to talk to the American public, what do you think that they need to acknowledge, to recognize?

  • Cheryl Juaire:

    They need to acknowledge that our children were good children. They got addicted to a drug that was pushed on them, and eventually went to heroin and eventually died from that — from that drug.

  • William Brangham:

    Claire, in your reporting, when you were talking to parents who had lost their children, many of them said that, when their children were struggling with their addictions, that they just didn't know where to turn, they felt adrift, they didn't know what treatment to pursue, that they really were struggling with that whole process.

  • Claire Galofaro:

    You know, so many of them described for me this moment after their child died where they sort of reflect on all they'd been through for months, for years in some cases, and arrive at this sort of question of, why was that so hard, that our treatment system is so fragmented and so broken?

    It's almost impossible for these parents to navigate. There are detoxes, rehabs, treatment facilities, some of them costing tens of thousands of dollars. And these parents are desperate. They're willing to do anything. They think their kid might die any day.

    So they mortgaged their homes. They cashed out their 401(k)s, all for treatment that sometimes, a lot of times, doesn't meet what is considered the gold standard of treatment, medically assisted treatment. And so their children relapse.

    And they start this whole crazy, chaotic cycle over again, eight, nine, 10 times in some cases. And when they have a moment to reflect on that, they wonder why our treatment system is as difficult to navigate as it is, even now, 20 years into this crisis.

    And I think what a lot of these parents say is that, with a crisis this big, we need to think big. We need a comprehensive plan. This is going to take tens of billions of dollars to fix in long-term, sustained funding, if we really want to start taking this epidemic seriously.

  • William Brangham:

    Cheryl, I know that part of the work that you're doing is opening up your phones and your home and your life to parents who have been through the horrible tragedy that you have been through.

    And I'm just curious how you do that. I mean, as a parent, I can't even imagine dealing with the loss of one of my own children, let alone trying to help carry the grief of so many other people. How do you do that?

  • Cheryl Juaire:

    When my son died in 2011, like I said, it was at the beginning of the epidemic.

    And I knew nobody who had lost a child, let alone to addiction. So, for the next couple of years, I suffered in my grief alone, until one day I met a couple of other moms who had lost their child as well. Because of that suffering, I knew what it felt like. I knew that deep feeling, and I didn't want anyone to have to feel that as long as I did alone.

    And that just — that just makes me want to go out there and find them and let them know that they're not alone.

  • William Brangham:

    Cheryl, I know, as part of your activism, you are also now protesting against Purdue Pharma in particular, the manufacturer of OxyContin, which was one of the originating factors in this entire epidemic.

    What do you want from Purdue Pharma?

  • Cheryl Juaire:

    I want them held responsible for what they have done to this country.

    They created the opioid epidemic. Richard Sackler is a reckless criminal, as he called our children. They pushed their OxyContin on everybody to try to get more money, to make them addicted longer, and to eventually die, is what happened to all our children.

    So, yes, we're fighting them. What I would like to see is, I would like to see the Sackler family in jail. They made $4 billion off OxyContin. And eventually, the long term, I would actually like to see the death penalty given to that family.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Cheryl Juaire and Claire Galofaro, thank you both very much for talking with us.

  • Cheryl Juaire:

    Thank you.

  • Claire Galofaro:

    Thank you, William.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Purdue Pharma and Richard Sackler, a one-time president of Purdue Pharma, and a son of the founding family, have denied suggestions of any wrongdoing or malicious intent in the marketing and selling of OxyContin.

    Purdue Pharma says it's also taken a series of steps to help stem the opioid crisis. And it says there were multiple factors and many parties that contributed to its rise.

    The company and the family are now embroiled in multiple lawsuits around the country.

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