Desiderio, at a press conference last October, discussed ways for the community to fight the county's opioid crisis.

By Donald Wittkowski

Sea Isle City plans to confront the scourge of drug abuse “head on” in a community forum that will underscore the perils of Cape May County’s opioid epidemic – one that has already claimed nearly 30 lives this year.

“Here in Sea Isle, we’re not sweeping anything under the rug,” Mayor Leonard Desiderio said. “We’re hitting it head on.”

Desiderio was joined by substance abuse experts, law enforcement representatives, school officials and community leaders at a press conference Thursday to announce two community workshops on Oct. 12 titled “Hidden in Plain Sight.”

Free and open to the public, the workshops will focus on the county’s opioid crisis and help parents and grandparents to fight substance abuse in their own homes by letting them know where their children are hiding their drugs.

The workshops, about two hours long, will be held at the former Sea Isle City Public School at 4501 Park Road. The first is scheduled for 12 p.m., while the second will follow at 6 p.m.

Urging the public to attend, Desiderio said the forum will reveal some “shocking” information about drug addiction. It is intended for adults only.

“We hope many of you will be able to attend – and that you will bring a friend,” the mayor said. “Because now is the time for frank discussions about an epidemic that is affecting families in every state, in every county and in every community.”

Sea Isle, a beach town studded with multimillion-dollar oceanfront homes, trendy restaurants and yacht clubs, would hardly seem to be the backdrop for concerns about opioid addiction.

But the city’s upscale atmosphere and family-friendly reputation hardly make it immune to the deadly drug crisis sweeping the nation, Desiderio pointed out.

“It is shocking how readily available deadly drugs are in our society today,” he said. “That’s why – now more than ever – it is critical for parents to be aware of all of the signs of substance abuse and all of the hiding places that may lurk in their homes.”

Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton called the drug problem “a crisis situation.”

As part of the community workshops, parents and grandparents will walk through a replica of a teenager’s bedroom – complete with furniture – to see more than 50 hiding places where drugs and paraphernalia can be stashed.

Desiderio said the workshops will include information for parents and grandparents that could “very well save the life of their child or another loved one.”

Other speakers at the press conference joined Desiderio in expressing alarm over the number of overdoses and deaths caused by the county’s drug epidemic.

“We are at a crisis situation,” Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton said bluntly.

Paul Skill, chief of detectives for the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office, said there have been 155 overdoses and 28 drug deaths in the county so far this year.

“I think parents are going to be shocked when they see these things,” Skill said of the county’s overdose statistics.

In Sea Isle, there has been only one reported drug overdose this year and no deaths, Skill said. In 2015 and 2016, Sea Isle had three overdoses each year.

“We don’t want any overdoses,” Desiderio stressed. “We’re hoping there are zero overdoses.”

Joining a trend among law enforcement agencies nationwide, all of Cape May County’s police departments are now using Narcan, an antidote for drug overdose. Acting County Prosecutor Rob Johnson said the number of overdose deaths would be higher if not for Narcan. So far in 2017, Narcan has been used 115 times in Cape May County to save overdose victims.

Acting Cape May County Prosecutor Rob Johnson credited the overdose antidote Narcan for saving lives.

Johnson, a 26-year veteran of the prosecutor’s office, said parents must become more vigilant in safeguarding and watching their children at home to protect them from drug addiction.

He also said he has come to realize over the years that prevention and education are among the most important elements in the war on drugs. Simply throwing drug abusers in jail as punishment should be the last resort, Johnson added.

“We have to get ahead of this in terms of treating it like a disease,” Johnson said.

Thornton noted that the freeholders recently authorized an approximately $4.7 million contract to complete the construction of the long-empty third floor of the county courthouse into more courtroom space for drug cases. The county’s drug court includes programs to help addicts get treatment and stay out of trouble.

Thornton, Desiderio and other speakers at the press conference expressed hope that the “Hidden in Plain Sight” drug workshops will serve as a platform for more community involvement throughout the county.

“Hidden in Plain Sight” has been presented in other communities, and what it has taught people has been amazing,” Desiderio said. “It exposes new substance abuse trends. It educates and enlightens participants. And it will show us all what to look for in our own homes.”

Sea Isle Police Chief Thomas D’Intino, center, and other senior law enforcement officers stand in front of a poster promoting the “Hidden in Plain Sight” drug forum.