Father's mission against heroin is intensely personal

Photos sent to Rumford by victims' loved ones. "You're always thinking of the memories," he said. "But the most important thing is the message."
Photos sent to Rumford by victims' loved ones. "You're always thinking of the memories," he said. "But the most important thing is the message." (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 29, 2013

There are so many photos of Kacie Rumford at her parents' Kennett Square home that it's almost as if she's in the room. She is on the mantel in the living room, on the bulletin board in the kitchen, on the background of her father's cellphone.

The largest photo of all sits on the side table next to the couch where she would sometimes sleep. It's a close-up, maybe one Kacie took herself - her father's laptop is still full of photos she took using its built-in webcam.

She's smiling tentatively, not quite looking at the camera. Her large, expressive eyes are ringed in thick black eyeliner. She's about 22 in that photo, says her father, Andy Rumford - and already in the clutches of the drug that would take her life.

Kacie Rumford was 23 when she died in March of a heroin overdose. And in the months since, Andy Rumford has turned his grief for his daughter outward, forming a heroin-awareness group called Kacie's Cause and advocating tirelessly throughout the region for just about anything that would spare another parent from experiencing what he has.

"I was like a naive parent," he said. "I thought [heroin] was an inner-city drug - that there was no way it was out in this area."

But local law enforcement officials say that heroin has a marked presence in the suburbs - and that the drug once associated with the inner city has made its way into suburban and rural communities. The U.S. Justice Department says heroin abuse has spread across the nation in recent years. One reason: Heroin is cheaper than some of the alternatives.

'Anywhere'

In Chester County, where Kacie Rumford grew up, 34 people died of heroin-related causes last year, 12 so far this year.

Neighboring Delaware County, where officials say heroin use is much more widespread, saw 52 heroin-related deaths in 2012 and has dealt with 20 so far this year.

"In my generation, when we were in our teens and early 20s, we never heard of anyone taking heroin," Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan said. "And I don't know what happened - how it made such a strong comeback."

"Back in the day, it was basically centralized in North Philly," said Sgt. Robert Friel, a narcotics officer with the Philadelphia Police Department. "Now it's in any part of the city. You can get it from anywhere. Even as far as Delaware, Maryland - they all come to Philly."

Kacie Rumford came to Philly, too, buying heroin in Kensington and squirreling it away in her room in Kennett Square. But she also bought in tiny, bucolic Oxford, a 20-minute drive from her home, her father said. At his kitchen table last week, he pulled out a makeup case he and his wife found in Kacie's room after her death.

It was filled with tiny blue heroin bags, all empty.

"I start to realize what an addict she was - I think, Why did she treat me this way?" Rumford said. "Well, it wasn't her. It was the drug talking."

Kacie was a bright child, he said - a voracious reader, involved in a slew of extracurriculars at school. "She gobbled books up," Rumford said. (He reads passages from her favorite, Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees, at her grave sometimes.)

After high school, however, Kacie "really couldn't find her way," Rumford said. She hopped from school to school, with stints at Pennsylvania State University and community colleges. She started using drugs around age 18 - likely, Andy Rumford said, by stealing prescription medications from her mother, who had suffered a stroke years before.

"Most people think these kids are still continuing to make a choice," said Gina Dischert, a member of Kacie's Cause, with two sons who have dealt with heroin addiction. "But eventually, that choice is taken from them."

'The message'

She and Rumford both refer to addiction as a disease - "like cancer or Alzheimer's," Rumford says - and have spent the months since Kacie's Cause was formed organizing a dizzying schedule of town-hall meetings, roundtables, and charity walks.

They have developed a lesson plan to teach schoolchildren about the dangers of heroin use. They have met with district attorneys and politicians and preachers. They are keeping an eye on proposed "Good Samaritan" legislation that protects drug users who call 911 for an overdosing companion.

Underneath the pair's determined facade is an unbearable, indescribable pain.

"You're always thinking of the memories," Rumford said. "But the most important thing is the message."

Around the region, local law enforcement departments are taking notice of heroin, instituting prescription-medication disposal programs and heroin task forces. In Chester County, heroin-related deaths are down from the same period of last year.

Heroin's popularity is linked to that of opioid prescription drugs - some of the most frequently abused drugs in the county, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Both drugs produce a similar high, law enforcement officials say, but heroin has one major selling point: It is significantly cheaper.

"Nobody starts out saying, 'OK, I'm going to try heroin today,' " Whelan said. "But they think it's OK to use prescription drugs, and they become addicted to opioids. And buying heroin is cheaper than trying to buy prescription medication on the black market."

The Philadelphia region is a particular hot spot for those looking to trade in heroin - "it's the cheapest and purest on the East Coast," said Chester County District Attorney Thomas Hogan.

"Heroin will become trendy out in the suburbs for a five-year period, and there'll be a spike in overdose deaths and public awareness, and problems will decrease in the suburbs," Hogan said. "We are already starting to see the down cycle because public awareness is ratcheting up - organizations like Kacie's Cause are getting the message out there."

At his house in Kennett Square, Andy Rumford is still working on the message, working through a grief that's both purposefully public and intensely private.

Outside the house, he has affixed bright-blue ribbons to each tree in the yard. He has placed dozens of crosses on the front lawn - each representing a heroin-related death last year in Chester County. He wants people to stop by, to ask questions, to look at the photos - it could save a life.

Some days are harder than others. Some days he "just shuts down." Some days he cleans out another section of Kacie's room, or stares too long at the photos crowding his desk - "the kind of stuff that just breaks your heart," he said.

"But you know someone is sharing Kacie's message," he says. "So you come out swinging. You fight. That's what you do."


Contact Aubrey Whelan at 610-313-8112 or awhelan@philly.com, or follow on Twitter @aubreyjwhelan.

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