For more than a day, the 7-year-old girl had been trying to wake her parents.
Dutifully, she got dressed in their apartment outside Pittsburgh on Monday morning and went to school, keeping her worries to herself. But on the bus ride home, McKeesport, Pa., police say, she told the driver she’d been unable to rouse the adults in her house.
Inside the home, authorities found the bodies of Christopher Dilly, 26, and Jessica Lally, 25, dead of suspected drug overdoses, according to police.
Also inside the home were three other children — ages 5 years, 3 years and 9 months.
The children were unharmed but still taken to a hospital to be checked out, then placed with the county’s department of children, youth and families.
The case cast a light on Allegheny County’s epidemic of drug overdoses — and their impact on families.
“There is an opioid overdose epidemic in the U.S., and Allegheny County is not immune,” county health officials said in a recent report.
There were 422 opioid-overdose deaths in Allegheny County last year, according to the report — the largest death toll in county history. “And the upward trend continues.”
The report noted that Allegheny County, which includes McKeesport and the city of Pittsburgh, “has experienced fatal overdose rates higher than those seen throughout Pennsylvania and many other states” during the past decade.
Illustrating their point, authorities told NBC affiliate WPXI that the double overdose at the 7-year-old’s home was the second they had responded to on that block in less than a day.
Speaking before the state legislature last week in Harrisburg, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) told lawmakers that the opioid epidemic facing Pennsylvania is “a public health crisis, the likes of which we have not before seen. Every day, we lose 10 Pennsylvanians to the disease of addiction. This disease does not have compassion, or show regard for status, gender, race or borders.
“It affects each and every Pennsylvanian, and threatens entire communities throughout our commonwealth. The disease of addiction has taken thousands of our friends and family members. In the past year alone we lost over 3,500 Pennsylvanians — a thousand more lives taken than the year before.”
Wolf added that “addiction too often is an invisible problem. ... But in Pennsylvania the problem is visible: In the lives lost. The families broken. The communities shaken.”
Nationwide, opioids such as heroin and prescription pain relievers killed more than 28,000 people in 2014, more than any year on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least half of all opioid overdose deaths involved a prescription drug, the CDC said, adding that the number of overdose deaths involving opioids has nearly quadrupled nationwide since 1999.
Behind the grim statistics are haunting scenes of overdose victims — and the children affected by their parents’ addictions.
Last month, a Family Dollar store employee in Massachusetts recorded a toddler in pink pajamas crying and pulling on her unconscious mother, who had overdosed and collapsed in the toy aisle.
The mother, who survived, was charged with child endangerment. Her daughter was placed under the care of child protective services.
Also last month, authorities in the Ohio city of East Liverpool released a photo of a man and a woman overdosing inside a vehicle that police said had been moving erratically. The driver was barely conscious; the passenger was turning blue. In the back: a 4-year-old boy restrained in a car seat.
Someone at the scene snapped a photo of the gruesome scene and the city posted it on its Facebook page “to show the other side of this horrible drug.”
And a photo of a Birmingham, Ala., police officer comforting a 1-month-old girl in a tiny purple gingham dress raced around the Internet after her father died of an apparent drug overdose and her mother was found near death.
The officer in the picture, Michelle Burton, told The Washington Post about the moment that night that saddened her the most. The couple’s 7-year-old daughter asked the officer to sign her homework so she could turn it in at school the next day.
“That broke my heart,” Burton said. “She said, ‘I did my work.’ She pulled it out and showed it to us. It was math homework — ‘Which number is greater? Which number is odd or even?’ … I told her, ‘Sweetie, you probably won’t have to go to school tomorrow. … But where you’re going is going to have everything you need.’ ”
She added: “It was horrible. It was a very sad situation.”
In Pennsylvania’s Lycoming County, coroner Charles Kiessling started recording the manner-of-death classification in most drug-overdose deaths as homicides earlier this year.
A lot was already being done to curb heroin use in his community, Kiessling told The Post — but using an accidental-death classification for an overdose felt as if he was “sweeping the problem under the carpet, to a certain extent.”
“They're not accidental deaths,” Kiessling said. “They’re homicides. Drug dealers are murderers. They need to be prosecuted as murderers.”
Homicide is defined as the death of an individual at the hands of another, Kiessling said; when he thought about drug deaths, the victims were dying at the hands of a dealer or supplier.
“You're killing people if you’re selling drugs,” he said.
In March, at the National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit, President Obama called opioid abuse and overdose deaths “heartbreaking,” adding: “I think the public doesn't fully appreciate yet the scope of the problem.”
By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.