A Mother’s Grief Turns to Activism


Erie County Probation Officer Debra Smith

Niagara Falls– As the demographics of opioids and heroin use continue to shift, a growing number of working families whose children have died from overdoses are calling for a change in approach to addressing the crisis. The growing armies of families are now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country’s approach to drug use, from altering the language around addiction to prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease. One of those activists is CSEA member Debra Smith from Erie County, who lost her son to addiction in September of 2015.

Smith, who is employed by the Erie County Probation Department, told her story as part of a panel discussion at the Western Region Fall Conference on September 17. Her heartbreaking journey of losing a son has taken her from working on the streets of Erie County to the funeral parlor to the halls of the Erie County Legislature to influence funding, humane treatment for those who suffer from addiction, and for the establishment of an Opiate Epidemic Task Force. Smith is making an attempt to educate others about humanizing addiction to hopefully break the social stigma attached to the disease.

“I am heartbroken. Nathaniel died at 26. He was brilliant, sensitive and kind. He was a loving and gifted person, and he didn’t deserve to die alone,” Smith told fellow conference attendees. “Like many people who experience accidents and injury, he was prescribed Demerol after surgery and became addicted to painkillers. By telling my story, hopefully we can reduce harm by raising awareness, treat the less fortunate with more dignity and spread a little more unconditional love around,” she said.

New CPS legislation must match social demand for policy changes

Many CSEA public service workers report the rise in social service caseloads is partly due to the opioid epidemic and the lack of resources dedicated to drug treatment, family services and mental health services here in New York State and nationwide.

CSEA is calling on Governor Cuomo to sign a bill that would limit the number of cases per month for Child Protective Services workers in an effort to give struggling families the help they so desperately deserve. This was one of the motivating factors why the Western Region Planning and Education Committees thought a panel discussion on the opioid epidemic at the annual Fall Conference was not only timely but a matter of direct urgency.

The Western Region panel presentation encompassed the progression of opiates through history to present day, the effects of opiates on the mind and body, present day treatment methods and recovery. The workshop discussion also included the experience of law enforcement, a social worker responsible for the treatment and care of recovering addicts and testimony from a recovering addict.

Western Region activist Kari Wilferth, who is a Social Services caseworker for Ontario County, said the workshop was empowering, emotional and necessary. “My take away from this experience is that heroin does not discriminate. Addiction can happen to anyone—and we all need to be problem solvers when confronting this epidemic.”


Debra Smith holds a photo of her son Nathaniel who passed away at age 26. Photo by Ove Overmyer, CSEA ©2016

-Story and Photos by Ove Overmyer, CSEA ©2016