"The Lost Children of Rockdale County" explores how a 1996 syphilis outbreak in a well-off Atlanta suburb affected over 200 teenagers and revealed their lives unknown to parents: group sex, binge drinking, drugs and violence. Some were as young as twelve and thirteen years old.
Although the program begins with an enquiry into how and why the syphilis outbreak happened,it becomes in the end a wider, deeper examination of the world of teenagers and their relationships with each other and with their parents. The report interweaves frank conversations with the parents of teens, as well as interviews with community leaders and educators and with the medical professionals who investigated the syphilis outbreak.
The program sketches a portrait of Rockdale County and its only town, Conyers. Twenty-four miles east of Atlanta on the interstate, Conyers is prosperous and tranquil. But a strip mall of fast food restaurants and chain stores is where the kids hang out. And parents talk about working too hard, often not having enough time for their children, and conflicted about how much to discipline them.
In interviews with a cross-section of Rockdale's teenagers--not all of whom were connected to the syphilis outbreak or even knew about it-- the teens are brutally honest in talking about their world. They describe sexual promiscuity, the new rules of dating and sex, their yearning to fit in and have friends, and their desire for attention--even discipline--from parents who confess they don't know how to--or are just too busy or too tired, to discipline, monitor or talk to their children about the important issues.
This program also looks at the Conyers community's reaction to the syphilis outbreak, and the town meeting which was held a year after the outbreak. One public health official who visited categorizes the community's reaction as "total denial."
"The Lost Children of Rockdale County" ends with mention of the shooting at Rockdale's Heritage High in the spring of 1999 which captured national headlines. The Heritage shooting came a month after the Columbine High shootings in suburban Denver.
The producers of this FRONTLINE report see a link between the Heritage High shooting and the syphilis outbreak three years earlier: they both are a metaphor for a deeper malady afflicting so many adolescents today, not just in Rockdale County.
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