Layla Kegg's mother, back home after three weeks who knows where, says she's done with heroin, ready for rehab, and wants to be part of her daughter's life. But Layla has heard all of this before and doesn't believe a single word.
Layla's trust was broken long ago, after years of watching her mother cycle in and out of addiction and rehab. And now this latest discovery: "I found a needle in your purse the other day," says Layla, her arms crossed.
A pause, and then a tumble of excuses from her mom: She doesn't know why the needles were there; they were only syringes, actually, and not needles; she was keeping them for a friend.
Layla, 17, rolls her eyes and sighs.
"It's almost like you want me to be using," her mother pleads tearfully, in a voice children more often use with their parents. "Everything I do is never going to be good enough, so what's the point?"
Five days later, Layla's mother, Nikki Horr, is gone again.
More than 20 years after the introduction of the prescription painkiller OxyContin, which authorities say has played a big role in spurring a nationwide opioid epidemic that has killed nearly 400,000 people, a generation is growing up amid the fallout. Call them Generation O: the children whose families are trapped in a relentless grip of addiction, rehab, and prison.
In Portsmouth, Ohio, where Layla now lives with her grandmother, everyone seems to know someone who's struggled with drug addiction. In Scioto County, where Portsmouth is located, 51 people died of an overdose in 2017. At one school, administrators say, four kindergartners lost parents to drugs and a fifth to a drug-related homicide.
Young people here describe chaotic home lives full of neglect and abuse. They recount begging their parents--who more often spend money on the next fix than on food--to stop using drugs. And they describe finding relatives unconscious or frothing at the mouth after overdosing.
School is a refuge for many students--a place where they not only attend classes but also have access to hot meals, hot showers, and donated clean clothes. On Fridays, students can take home backpacks full of food so they won't go hungry over the weekend.
Portsmouth High School offers students not just breakfast and lunch but also laundry facilities. Many students frequently come to school wearing the same, unwashed clothes days in a row, so shelves are stocked with clean garments, along with shampoo, bars of soap, and deodorant.
Yet some of the teenagers change back into their own clothes after the final bell rings and the last class ends "because parents will take new clothes and sell them for drug money," says Drew Applegate, an assistant principal.
"We don't live in a third world country, but some of these kids are living in third world conditions," he adds. "Kids out there are raising themselves to the best of their abilities."
Ground Zero for Opioids
Like many American towns ravaged by opioids, Portsmouth, which hugs the Ohio River and borders Kentucky, was once an economic powerhouse. Nearly a century ago, it was home to thriving shoe and steel industries and a professional football team. But today, much of Portsmouth is forlorn and frayed. Vacant brick buildings, their windows boarded up, dot downtown. Addicts wander along the train tracks at all hours, offering to sell their bodies for drug money. Billboards along the main highway advertise rehab services and the opioid treatment Suboxone.
Scioto County has long been considered ground zero in Ohio's opioid epidemic. In 2010, nearly 9.7 million pills were prescribed there--more than in any other part of the state and enough to give 123 pills to each county resident, according to official statistics. Over the years, as opioid prescriptions have fallen, many drug users have moved on to heroin and fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid that frequently causes overdose deaths.
As the epidemic has spiraled out of control, the addicts' children have become collateral damage. Harrowing stories of living amid addiction spill out during therapy sessions at school or in halting conversations with a sympathetic basketball coach.
Christian Robinson, 18, who plans to join the Marines after he graduates from high school, says his mom went to rehab when he was 11, but she relapsed last year on meth and heroin.
"Mom has said that even us kids are not a good enough reason to stay clean," Robinson says. One of his sisters was born dependent on crack cocaine, he says, and a brother was born dependent on the prescription opioid oxycodone.
"I've seen what drugs can do to a family, and it's not worth it to me," Robinson says.
Dabbling in Pills
Layla used to live in a middle-class neighborhood with her half-sister, her...