Mothers join in cause to rattle Oregon into action on addiction care

Several dozen moms who have children with a drug addiction want the state to take action before more people overdose

By: - May 6, 2022 6:00 am

A group of Oregon moms, gathered her outside the Oregon Public Health building in northeast Portland, are fighting for more treatment beds for addiction. (Lynne Terry/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

For Mother’s Day, a few dozen moms plan to celebrate at a Portland rally. 

They want to raise awareness about Oregon’s drug crisis. The state has the highest rate of addiction in the country, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“I’m trying to educate other parents,” said Meggan McEvoy, a Portland social worker who recently joined the mothers’ group behind Sunday’s rally.

The women in the group know about addiction firsthand. They have children addicted to drugs. Oregon Moms for Addiction Recovery, formed last August, brings them comfort. They share resources and information. They share tears. They give each other what others can’t: understanding.

“They get it,” said Pam Connelly, a Coos Bay mom who joined the group at the start. She has a son with a drug addiction. “You can’t just talk about it in your community because there’s a stigma. So you seek out other people who have been where you are or are where you are and you share because you need to.”

About three dozen women are in the group, sponsored by Oregon Recovers, a Portland-based advocacy organization. They meet monthly on Zoom. They live in the Portland area, northeastern Oregon, Salem and the coast. They text and call each other. Together, they want the thousands of other parents in a similar situation to know they’re not alone.

The rally at Woodstock Park in southeast Portland on Sunday at noon will be the first time some of them meet in person. This is their first event.

Sunday rally

The event is open to the public:

Who: Oregon Moms for Addiction Recovery

When: Sunday, May 8; 12 – 2 p.m.

Where: Woodstock Park, S.E. 47th Ave. and Steele St., Portland, OR 97206

“We want to bring awareness to the epidemic that our kids are dying and nobody cares,” Connelly said. 

Her 34-year-old son is couch surfing in Coos Bay. He’s served a prison sentence for selling drugs. He’s been clean and then relapsed, again and again.

“I was the first person to start bringing large quantities of heroin” into Coos County, her son Kyle told Capital Chronicle. “Now this place is flooded with it, and most of my friends and family members are taken down by it. I was the one who screwed up a lot of people’s lives.”

As a boy, Kyle was the heart of his social circles.

“He played every sport. He was everyone’s friend. Even the guy who had no friends knew that Kyle was his friend. He was very gregarious,” Connelly said.

At 19, he went to North Carolina to study at the NASCAR Technical Institute. He wanted to work in the truck industry. He came home changed. He avoided family gatherings or showed up late. He shunned a favorite uncle and kept to himself.

While In North Carolina, he drank and took Vicodin, a common opioid. Back home, he got oxycodone from a friend. 

“Everything up to then, was like, we’re just doing this for fun or just doing this for pleasure,” Kyle said. “We can stop anytime. But with oxy there was no stopping.”

The pills became too expensive so he switched to heroin. He needs it every few hours to feel normal. 

“When they’re at this point, they’re not using drugs to get high,” Connelly said. “They’re using drugs to not be sick.”

Threat of death

McEvoy’s daughter is addicted to the fake oxycodone tablets that have flooded the state. They contain fentanyl, a potent opioid that’s at least 50 times more powerful than morphine and heroin. The pills, which are blue and often stamped with an “M,” are suspected of killing two northeast Portland area teenagers in March. 

McEvoy worries the pills could kill her 22-year-old daughter, once a promising honor student on a scholarship to Portland State University. She hoped to earn a master’s degree, perhaps in political science.

“She was really passionate about social justice and advocacy and policy change,” McEvoy said.

She started using marijuana in eighth grade and became addicted. McEvoy didn’t recognize the signs. 

“You think of marijuana as making our kids feel relaxed,” McEvoy said. “A lot of times the symptoms are anxiety and emotion dysregulation.”

McEvoy faults the state for not educating the public about the potency of cannabis after it was legalized for recreational use in 2016 for those 21 and older. 

“The messaging at the time was that marijuana was safe,” McEvoy said. “But the THC content is so high, and it’s so dangerous for developing brains.” 

THC is the main compound in cannabis behind the high. 

“There was no public health education around any of these things,” McEvoy said. 

Her daughter tried cocaine and opioids but felt if she could get off marijuana she would stop everything else. She got into a therapy group but everyone was older. She couldn’t relate to them so she dropped out.

When they're at this point, they're not using drugs to get high. They're using drugs to not be sick.

– Pam Connelly, Coos Bay mom of son with a heroin addiction

During the pandemic, her daughter became addicted to the fake blue pills. 

“She’s really, really, really struggling,” McEvoy said.

A social worker who can navigate the health care system, McEvoy has had trouble getting her own daughter into treatment. There are too few openings.

“It was shocking how difficult it was, especially because she has two insurance policies,” McEvoy said.

The number of in-patient residential treatment facilities for addiction plummeted over the last two years. Before the pandemic, there were 134 beds for young people among members of the Oregon Council for Behavioral Health, which represents most substance use providers. Now there are fewer than 40. 

The number of residential treatment slots for adults fell from nearly 640 before the pandemic to 399 last summer, the council said. 

Oregon now ranks last nationwide in access to treatment, according to the substance abuse administration.

“The whole month of October I set my alarm for 8:30 and called three different treatment services,” Connelly said. “Most of them don’t answer. If they do answer they say they don’t have any space right now.”

Measure 110, which was approved in November 2020 was touted as the answer to Oregon’s addiction crisis. It decriminalized personal use and was supposed to funnel marijuana tax dollars towards harm reduction, housing and recovery. But the state is still sitting on $270 million that was scheduled to have been distributed in January.

The moms want that money released.

“Our leadership needs to understand that they need to release these funds so that our kids stop dying,” said Jennifer, a Portland mom who requested that her last name be withheld to protect her son. 

She never expected him to be consumed by drugs. He was a typical kid in the Portland area. He participated in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. He played baseball and swam. But in high school he got into trouble.

“I think that’s when everything pretty much started. I wasn’t aware back then. I thought this is something that kids go through,” Jennifer said.

It’s difficult for her to talk about her only child without crying. “If I had known then what I know now, I think I would have definitely done things differently. I probably would have forced treatment,” Jennifer said. 

Moms come together

Jennifer was one of the first four mothers in the group. It started after last June when Oregon Recovers staged an awareness event outside the Capitol. It planted the grass with 1,206 red flags, representing the overdose deaths the first half of that year. A few moms were there to tell their stories.

Mike Marshall, executive director of the organization, realized they were good for each other.

“They provided each other with extraordinary support,” Marshall said.

Their accounts give Oregon Recovers wider reach, Marshall said.

“We’re up against a lot of strong financial interests like the alcohol industry and big pharma. They have money, and with money they can buy political capital. We don’t have money,” Marshall said.

But the moms have authority those industries lack.

“The moms bring a moral force and a moral authority and a moral focus to substantive policy questions,” Marshall said.

The moms bring a moral force and a moral authority and a moral focus to substantive policy questions.

– Mike Marshall, executive director of Oregon Recovers

Being in the group gives the moms resolve, they said.

“It gives me strength knowing that there are other moms out there who are fighting with me,” she said. “So many times you feel isolated and alone.”

The moms want others to know that addiction is a disease with no quick fix and no easy options. Each mom has found it nearly impossible to secure a place in residential treatment, considered vital for success.

Like others in the group, Jennifer tries to keep her child close but she won’t let him live with her when he’s using drugs. 

“I don’t fall into the old school of tough love and let them hit rock bottom. I think our kids need support with boundaries that keep me safe,” she said.

The rally Sunday won’t be the last, McEvoy said.

“We want to do this monthly and do it around the state –  not just in the Portland area,” McEvoy said.

The group plans to wave signs about addiction, recovery and a call to action. They picked Woodstock Park because Gov. Kate Brown lives in the area, McEvoy said.

“We’re trying to convey a message to her,” McEvoy said.

See our related coverage: Normal families struggle with abnormal lives


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Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years.