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Small town, big addictions

Families in rural Sioux Center, Iowa, have discovered they aren’t immune from the drug scourge, but some locals are fighting back

Small town, big addictions

(Judy Griesedieck/Genesis)

Heaven Gaskins, dressed in a bright orange prison jumpsuit, broke down in tears in a courtroom in northwest Iowa. “I was so grateful,” she remembers, after the judge sent her to drug court instead of prison.

Three months earlier, wearing dressy black attire and a gray scarf, she was crying in the same courtroom, but for a different reason. In February 2016 she received a five-year prison sentence for robbing a bank. As an officer led the 19-year-old away in handcuffs, Gaskins cried out to her family, “I love you so much.”

Gaskins started using meth in 2015, the year after she graduated from high school. She couldn’t keep a job or attend college. She lived to get high, looking for her next fix: “I knew it was ruining my life.” She needed money to buy meth, so she and a friend stole $10,000 from the Sioux City bank where Gaskins worked. The two girls faked a bank heist: Gaskins, a bank teller, handed over the money and pretended to faint. But Gaskins’ friend had locked her keys in the car and couldn’t get away with the money.

Drug crimes happen all over the United States. Media reports often focus on drug use in poor inner-city areas or decaying Rust Belt towns. But prosperous agricultural areas also struggle with substance abuse.

Visitors to northwest Iowa “come through here and they see beautiful, manicured lawns and it’s a beautiful town,” says Rod DeKruyf, a 25-year resident of Sioux Center, a small farming community and Christian college town: “Clean cars on Sunday. Clean windows. Fences painted.” Yet behind the groomed lawns and smiling faces, alcohol and drug addictions lurk.

Residents of small, tight-knit communities often hesitate to talk about addiction. When substance abuse comes to light, the tight, local bond can become a noose of shame. Addicts in large cities can be mostly anonymous during their rehabilitations, but privacy in small towns is rare. It’s hard to live down a bad reputation. 



SCOTT STARKWEATHER’S SON’S ADDICTION began when he was in high school. He started smoking pot and moved on to prescription drugs and alcohol. Scott had made a deal with about 10 other parents: They would let Scott know if they heard his kids were drinking or doing drugs. But no parent ever breathed a word to the Starkweathers. They didn’t know about their son’s growing addiction until he started college.

By the time Scott’s son was 25, he had flunked out of three different colleges, been to jail for burglary, and was addicted to alcohol and marijuana. His long arrest record shows the court system dismissed most charges or gave him probation.

Once his addiction became public knowledge, the Starkweather family became the subject of small-town gossip. Scott plummeted into what he now recognizes as a season of depression: “So many people gave us the Sioux County Stare.” Many long-standing friends walked out of their lives.

Throughout his son’s addiction, Starkweather pursued as many treatment options as he could find in northwest Iowa. He thought if he worked hard enough, he would fix his son’s problems. During a visit to a treatment facility, Starkweather found himself sitting across from a fourth-generation alcoholic who could have walked out of Duck Dynasty. The man said he overcame his addiction when his wife stopped trying to fix him and started to walk alongside him. After hearing the man’s story, Starkweather stopped trying to fix his son’s addiction.

Over Memorial Day weekend, Scott and his son went fishing with a group of friends. Afterward, the son told his dad, “Wouldn’t it be fun to go to church with those people?” Before the addiction, Scott would have judged these tattooed fishing friends who didn’t fit the mold of a clean-cut churchgoer. Now he’s excited that his son associates church with fellowship.

Starkweather loves his colleagues, his church, and his neighbors. But since his son’s addiction, he’s seen a new dimension of his community. He says Sioux County’s addiction problem differs from most urban areas because vaping, smoking pot, and drinking are not popular activities. Since substance abuse is shameful and unpopular, it slips by unnoticed. Starkweather says many people in Sioux County don’t realize their students encounter drugs and alcohol as much as students in urban areas do.

Judy Griesedieck/Genesis

Derek Dreise (Judy Griesedieck/Genesis)

DEREK DREISE KNOWS drug use is prevalent in northwest Iowa. He’s a certified drug recognition expert, but more often he’s simply known as “the drug guy,” which he says he’s OK with. Dreise stands 6 feet, 5 inches tall, 240 pounds. He carries a stun gun, several knives, a police baton, and a .40-caliber firearm. Dreise analyzes drivers who have been caught under the influence of drugs or alcohol. He carries Narcan with him—a nasal spray that combats an opioid overdose. There is no treatment for meth overdose.

In this rural farming community, Dreise sees hardworking farmers who have become drug addicts. Without enough time to care for their crops and animals, they turn to meth or opioids for an energy boost and pain stifler. Once started, these drugs are “a tough thing to kick,” Dreise says. The first step toward recovery is admitting an addiction, which he says is hard to do in a small community.

Josh Knaack, the only drug court probation officer in Plymouth and Sioux counties, speaks of “desperate situations out there, right in our own backyard.” He’s swamped by the number of cases he handles. While the opioid crisis has been getting significant national attention, meth use is a bigger problem in northwest Iowa. The number of rural Iowa drug users who say meth is their primary drug of choice has more than doubled since 2010, from 1,325 to 3,088 in 2018, the Iowa Department of Public Health reports.

“It’s an awful, awful substance. I wish we could disinvent meth,” says Knaack. 

He remembers seeing a naked 3-year-old scampering down the street, his parents gone on a meth run. Knaack knows why those situations keep happening: Drug addiction hijacks the brain so an addict’s only thoughts are of how to get the next hit. A volatile home environment causes trauma, which rewires the brain to avoid pain and punishment at all costs. Trauma victims are likely to turn to pain-numbing drugs.

Knaack, who is pursuing a clinical psychology degree, believes treatment, not time in prison, is the best way to stop drug addiction. When addicts get out of prison, they often relapse.

He works for a community drug court, where offenders complete a mandatory, court-supervised addiction recovery program staffed by volunteers rather than judges. (Those who don’t comply with the program rules risk a probation violation.) Jean Huff has volunteered on Sioux City’s drug court since it began in 1999: “It’s my faith that tells me I can’t be all about myself. … I want to go. I can listen.” She says some of her local friends don’t want to hear about Iowa’s drug addictions: “It’s not pleasant to think our community has a drug problem, but we do.”

Knaack says the community drug court provides personal accountability for addicts and saves money. About 50 percent of participants graduate from it. Of those graduates, 70 percent will stay clean. He says isolation is a particular problem for recovering addicts in rural areas. Even in their hometowns, they don’t feel at home. Knaack requires addicts to move from their small towns to Sioux City for the first stages of treatment. The city of 80,000 offers support groups and recovery programs that smaller towns don’t have—and sometimes hearing a recovered addict’s success story can change another addict’s life.

The first step toward recovery is admitting an addiction, which is hard to do in a small community. 

TERI QUINTANA GREETS people walking into Sunnybrook Community Church. As the worship band practices and the smell of Chick-fil-A wafts through the building, Quintana shakes hands and catches up on lives. It’s a Thursday evening, not a Sunday morning. Visitors are here for Celebrate Recovery, a Biblically based 12-step program. Quintana co-leads the program in Sioux City to give addicts what she gained—hope.

Seven years ago Quintana attended her first Celebrate Recovery meeting. The worship band played. People sang. Quintana cried. She doesn’t remember what song they sang. She does remember what she now knows was the work of the Holy Spirit: “Hope was filling me up.”  

Quintana tried meth for the first time when she was 16. She turned to meth again and again: when her high-school boyfriend died in a car accident, when her former husband abused her, when another boyfriend hung himself while in jail for dealing drugs. Quintana wanted to end her addiction but couldn’t. At 33, she enrolled at a treatment facility where she heard about Celebrate Recovery and learned “Jesus made all the difference in recovery.”

She’s been clean for seven years: “God healed my obsession. … I know it’s because of my faith.” 

Back in Sioux Center, 45 miles down the road, Roger Broek and his wife, Linda, started a Celebrate Recovery group in 2016 at the request of a local pastor. Many churches don’t have their own recovery programs, so they refer addicts to programs like Celebrate Recovery. Broek says the program’s leaders, unlike most pastors, have struggled with addiction: “You really can’t understand recovery unless they’ve been there.”

Broek attended a Celebrate Recovery group in 2003 when alcoholism made him suicidal. He says the Christ-centered focus of the program “was just what I needed”—and when addicts hear he’s a recovered alcoholic, they tend to trust him more. He’s encouraged local pastors to attend Celebrate Recovery to see what it’s like. So far no one has taken him up on the offer, which he says is disappointing. 

AFTER A JUDGE SENTENCED Heaven Gaskins to five years in prison, he gave her the chance to turn her life around by assigning her to drug court. She took two years to complete the program, and when she graduated, that same judge was there to tell her he was proud of her.

Gaskins’ journey to recovery wasn’t free of stumbles. The stigma of addiction made her feel ostracized: “Everyone knows you and your business.” She struggled to find friends who weren’t doing drugs. The court revoked her driver’s license, so someone else had to drive her to three or four probation appointments each week.

The hardest part of her recovery was staying clean when the rest of life was going badly and she wanted something to numb her emotions. Gaskins relapsed in August 2016 and spent five days behind bars after smoking marijuana at a music festival.

She says a different parole officer, who was “empathetic and compassionate … didn’t treat me like a drug addict or criminal, but like a human being.” She’s been clean ever since.

When she was tempted to relapse, Gaskins would call her probation officer, a family member, or a friend from her Narcotics Anonymous group. She would “play the tape forward” and think about the consequences of doing drugs again: “If I do this, I could go straight back to prison.” 

Now Gaskins is married, has two children, and is pursuing a master’s degree in psychology. She works at a mental health institute and leads drug court alumni meetings: “My life is just filled with a lot more meaning.”

—Hannah Harris is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute; with reporting by Belle Mitchell, Kathryn Lewis, Justine Lookenott, and Rebekah Ferris

Hannah Harris

Hannah Harris

Hannah is a WORLD reporter based in Asheville, N.C.


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  • Janet B
    Posted: Wed, 08/07/2019 09:40 am

    Our county has a Drug Court and a Mental Health court (for people who commit crimes because of mental health issues).  It has been a good thing.