Graphic Photo of Couple Overdosing With Child in Backseat Goes Viral, Causes Outrage

By Keri Blakinger 09/12/16

The viral photo has left many questioning the police department's decision to publicize the tragic, stigmatizing image on Facebook.

 Graphic Photo of Couple Overdosing With Child in Backseat Goes Viral, Causes Outrage

Editor's Note: We have opted not to show the image. Our editorial mission is to destigmatize all forms of addiction and mental health matters, support recovery, and assist toward humane policies and resources. In our opinion, the sharing of this image is exploitative and harmful and in direct opposition to our stated mission. Addiction is a disease, according to most medical associations. People with a disease deserve our respect and care, not public shaming and judgment.

A photo of an Ohio couple in the midst of a drug overdose has taken the Internet by storm, after police posted the graphic image to their Facebook page last Thursday. 

On Wednesday afternoon, an East Liverpool, Ohio police officer came across an SUV driving erratically. The cop approached the driver, who had “pin point pupils” and was “almost unintelligible,” according to the police report

The driver said he was taking his female passenger to the hospital. The female passenger was already unconscious and turning blue and, during the interaction, the driver fell unconscious in front of the officer. The officer called for help, but sometime during the course of the crisis, he stopped to snap a couple of photos of the scene. 

The haunting pictures show the pair—who at first glance appear dead—and the woman's 4-year-old grandson staring from the backseat. 

Both OD victims survived, thanks to a lifesaving dose of Narcan. The toddler was placed through Columbiana County Children’s Services. The driver pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 180 days in jail for driving under the influence and endangering children, according to the Morning Journal. The passenger is facing charges of disorderly conduct and endangering children. She pleaded not guilty. 

The department later took heat for its decision to publicize the stigmatizing image, but tried to offer some justification in their initial post.

“We feel it necessary to show the other side of this horrible drug. We feel we need to be a voice for the children caught up in this horrible mess. This child can't speak for himself but we are hopeful his story can convince another user to think twice about injecting this poison while having a child in their custody,” they wrote.

“We are well aware that some may be offended by these images and for that we are truly sorry, but it is time that the non drug using public sees what we are now dealing with on a daily basis. The poison known as heroin has taken a strong grip on many communities not just ours, the difference is we are willing to fight this problem until it's gone and if that means we offend a few people along the way we are prepared to deal with that.”

The city’s director of public service and safety later explained that East Liverpool decided to release the un-blurred photos after a public records request from a local news station, according to the Washington Post

The original post has been shared more than 28,000 times in less than a week—and it’s garnered some incredibly mixed reactions. 

Some Facebook commenters called the two adults “selfish” and “scum.” Others slammed the police department for failing to blur out the child’s face and some complained that their critical comments were being deleted. As it went viral, the post also sparked a spate of outraged op-eds.

“People with substance use disorders are not animals at a zoo, and are certainly not a cog in the voyeuristic machine that is often modern day America. Is what happened awful? Of course it is—there was a baby in the car. Was it wrong that the parents did such a thing? Again, of course it was,” wrote Robert Ashford in a Huffington Post essay. 

“However, this ‘exposé’ is more reminiscent of 1980s and '90s 'War on Drugs' material than it is to the public health approach we must strive to take. For those of you old enough to remember, we have tried the same approach taken above just a few short decades ago. It did not work then, and it will not work now.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.