Pubdate: Fri, 07 Jan 2005
Source: Eagle-Tribune, The (MA)
Copyright: 2005 The Eagle-Tribune
Author: Julie Manganis
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SALEM - When Elena Sorrento died at 28 from a lethal overdose of heroin and 
cocaine, she wasn't the only victim. There's her mother, who is still in a 
deep depression three years later. There's her sister, Jennene, a single 
mother who suddenly found herself with another child to raise. And there's 
Nickolas, Elena's son. He was just 2 the morning of Aug. 25, 2001, when he 
woke up in bed next to his dead mother. He may have tried to wake her - no 
one knows for sure. At some point they do know Nickolas got out of bed and 
found his father sleeping on a sofa. They made  breakfast, thinking they 
were letting Elena sleep in. But around 9:30, Jennene, who lived in the 
apartment downstairs, heard her sister's boyfriend yelling, "Jennene, come 
up here." "She was stiff and cold, and he's shaking," Jennene Sorrento 
recalled. "I didn't know what to think." The toll heroin takes on its users 
is only part of the story.

The drug devastates entire families. Troubles began early Growing up in 
Salem, Jennene and her younger sister weren't all that close. Jennene was a 
good student who often went straight from school to work. Elena was a 
tomboy who began experimenting with drugs. Jennene was eager to distance 
herself from her sister and moved to California after high school. "It 
wasn't until I came back that I saw how bad she was." Jennene soon 
discovered she could not keep her distance anymore.

And the reason was Nickolas. In 1998, after several rehab stays, Elena 
became pregnant.

Nickolas was born premature on June 15, 1999, weighing just 5 pounds, 9 ounces.

He spent several  weeks in the hospital, where doctors discovered cysts on 
his brain. As a result, Nickolas is developmentally behind his peers.

As far as Jennene knows, no test was done to determine whether the baby had 
been exposed to drugs  in utero. To this day, Jennene still doesn't know 
how many times her sister used heroin. Until her death, family members 
assumed Elena's major problem was  alcohol.

On the night before Elena's body was found, she and her boyfriend, Joe, 
were back together and seemed happy, said Jennene. "For some reason, I felt 
calm, I  felt relieved," Jennene says. Then the next morning, around 9:30, 
she heard Joe screaming. The aftermath The next few hours were chaotic: her 
father, sick with cancer and filled with rage, threatened to kill the 
boyfriend; Jennene's own daughter, then 5, tried to  distract little 
Nickolas by pointing out all the firetrucks on the street; a  state 
Department of Social Services caseworker showed up and told Jennene 
she  could take Nickolas. The police found cocaine and heroin in Elena's 
purse, under her bed, and eventually, in her bloodstream. In the midst of 
all of the chaos, Jennene recalls, there was an unexpected emotion: relief. 
"We didn't have to worry anymore.

We were sad and angry, but we didn't have to worry." Jennene took over 
raising Nickolas as the boy's father bounced in and out of rehab. "My life 
completely changed, and nobody ever helped me," she says. She used every 
dime available to her - cashed in her retirement account and took out a 
loan - just to pay for the funeral. Last year, the father voluntarily gave 
up his parental rights, freeing Nickolas, now 5, to be legally adopted by 
Jennene. As she started the process, Jennene was asked how she would tell 
him what happened to his mother. "I don't know," she says. She wonders 
whether Nickolas remembers anything from that time. "Did he try to wake her 
up?" Jennene asks, knowing that for a long time she had to rock him  to 
sleep at night and he wouldn't go into his mother's bedroom. In the months 
after his mother's death, Nickolas would sometimes look at pictures of his 
mother and say "That's my mom," and then say the same thing when he saw a 
picture of Jennene. Now he calls his birth mother "Auntie Elena" and 
Jennene his "Mom." Except for one morning. On the July day a Salem Juvenile 
Court judge finalized his adoption, Jennene took Nickolas to visit Elena's 
grave at St. Mary's Cemetery in Salem. They spent  a few moments there, 
placing flowers on the grave. As they turned to leave, Nickolas turned 
back. "Bye, mom," he said,  waving.
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