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Carlton County War on Drugs: Addiction’s harm extends beyond addict

Anyone who argues that drug addicts are harming only themselves need look only at the now-familiar case of Vanessa Brigan to see the ripple effects caused by one person’s drug addiction.

More than 60 people packed a Carlton County courtroom last month when Brigan was sentenced to six years in prison for vehicular homicide. All of them were affected by the crash.

Brigan and a passenger were driving back from a methadone clinic in Brainerd on the morning of Oct. 1, 2012, when Brigan crossed the center line of the two-lane Highway 210 near Wright. Her car hit a Carlton County Highway Department truck, breaking the back axle and causing the truck to veer into oncoming traffic. Both Zachary M. Gamache, 25, and Mitchell D. Lingren, 29, died at the scene after being thrown from the truck. Brigan admitted to being high at the time of the accident, after injecting methadone directly into her bloodstream.

Gamache left behind a fiancee and her two sons, his parents, six brothers, numerous nieces and nephews, friends and extended family members.

Lingren’s wife and two children were left without their husband and father — the steady rock of the family — a hockey coach to his young son’s team. His parents mourned the loss of a second son, and his sister another brother, just a month before her wedding.

Not represented in that courtroom were Brigan’s loved ones, including three daughters who now have to live with their grandmother in another state. Brigan’s sister, Jessica Mandoli, said she knew her sister — before drugs — as a happy, caring person, who would lend a hand to anyone without judging them.

Mandoli, who took care of Brigan’s daughters for six weeks after the crash until her mother could make arrangements for them to come live with her, described what the girls, then ages 8, 9 and 11, had to deal with in the days and weeks that followed.

“I know there was a lot of denial and pain, not knowing what to expect and hearing negative things in the media,” she said, telling how at least one of the girls had watched as the school news program reported on the crash.

Outside of the classroom, it was even worse.

“They were made fun of by other kids, who told them their mom was a murderer,” Mandoli said. She wouldn’t allow her sister’s kids or her own kids to go on Facebook, out of fear that they would see what people were posting.

“People were wishing she’d rot in hell, saying things like ‘I hope she dies,’ and complaining that there can be no justice,” she said. “The hurtful things people said on social media (have) been the most detrimental to my family. Yes, people have a right to their opinions, but I don’t think people think much about the other side, the fact that Vanessa means something to people, that she wasn’t always like that. Those who knew her before she was involved with drugs, we still have those memories and we still care about her.”

A tearful Mandoli didn’t make excuses for her sister, although she noted that Brigan is very remorseful and probably will struggle for the rest of her life with the knowledge of what she did. Mandoli said she is angry with her sister, and angry with the system.

At the time of the crash, it had been close to two years since Mandoli had had much contact with her sister.

“There was a point in time where I had to cut myself off because of her behavior,” Mandoli said in an interview in March. “I didn’t want her or the people she associated with near me or my kids.”

Mandoli, who is trained as a nurse, had tried to intervene many times once she found out her sister was abusing prescription medication and, eventually, methadone, which was prescribed to her. Methadone is a synthetic opioid used somewhat controversially in the treatment of heroin or other opioid addictions. It can be abused and is highly addictive.

She had talked to her sister, told her of different treatment options, listened to her sister’s promises to get treatment and watched as things keep getting worse.

Mandoli said more than one person contacted child protective services to make complaints about her sister, to try to get officials to intervene, but were told they couldn’t do anything because it was hearsay. They needed evidence. Calls to law enforcement agencies also did no good — they couldn’t just go and search her house for drugs without justification, they said. Although she had many driving violations, Brigan’s criminal record was minimal.

Official intervention Just because a parent is addicted to drugs, even heroin, doesn’t mean child services will automatically get involved.

“We would only get involved if there is a maltreatment report, indicating how they’re not caring for or endangering their child,” said Carlton County Children and Family Services supervisor Brenda Carlson. “There could be thousands of people on methadone who are maintaining their lives. We’d only get involved if there is an issue with them not caring for their children or prenatal exposure (in the case of a pregnant woman).”

In the end, she explained, officials have to be able to prove why a parent isn’t fit in a court of law and according to state statute. They need to know how the children are in danger, why they are at risk and how their health and safety needs aren’t being met.

“We have to make sure that the burden of proof is met before we can intervene,” Carlson said.

When they do get involved, said Carlson and Lisa Edmundson, a child protection investigator for Carlton County, the goal is not to rip the child away from the family, even if the parents are addicted to drugs. There is a time frame they have to work within so a child doesn’t “languish,” but time and experience have also shown that taking a child away from his or her family is also not always healthy.

“If kids are removed, the goal is always to (reunite) the kids with the parents and help the parents be the best parents they can be,” Edmundson said.

“We want to keep the children safe, and give parents the resources and treatment to deal with the issues that got us involved in the first place,” Carlson said.

Both praised the strong relationship the county has with local law enforcement agencies, working together in many cases where drug use is presenting an obvious danger to children or others.

Edmundson said children often are aware of a parent’s drug abuse, but may not realize the dangers.

“In my position, we interview the kids — if they’re verbal — to get an understanding of what is going on,” Edmundson said. “It’s interesting how descriptive they are. They can tell you step-by-step what it takes to shoot up; where the spoon is, what they put on it, where the needles are, they add a little of this, then they heat it, then they inject it here. And this is from a 4-year-old that I remember talking to. He told me where I could find stuff in the house, what color bin it’s in.

“Kids are exposed to a lot more and have a lot of that information … they’ve got little photographic memories that can give you so much detail. And to them it doesn’t seem like a huge deal. It’s what they see all the time. It’s what they’ve grown up with. It’s almost like they’re reporting on a movie … and they’re very accurate.”

Edmundson said there usually is some kind of trauma in almost every addict’s past, that they are trying to escape.

“I’d say 90 percent of the people we work with have had some kind of childhood or early adulthood trauma,” Edmundson said. “Abuse, a parent’s chemical dependency issues, sexual abuse … and they’re using (drugs) to cope.”

It’s not something that happens only in big, faraway cities.

“I think there is an idea that stuff like this just happens in Duluth or Chicago,” Carlson said. “It happens here.”

And the effects of drug addiction go beyond the addict and his or her family and friends.

“It affects everybody,” Cloquet Police Detective Darrin Berg said. “Because of addiction, you lay waste to a plethora of victims, whether it’s through theft, burglary, scams, fraud, shoplifting or something else.

“They’ll do anything to try to get money. Sometimes it’s so blatant they will get caught, but they need that fix today so they don’t worry about the future.”

Berg said he feels bad for people addicted to drugs, but he feels worse for “the destruction they cause on their families and other people that have been victimized by them.”

“The effects of drug abuse touch everyone, even those lucky enough not to have family members struggling with drug or alcohol addiction,” he added.

Born into drugs When Dr. Christina Falgier started working at the Newborn Intensive Care Unit at Duluth’s Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center, about 2 percent of babies in the intensive care unit spent the first days of their lives going through withdrawal from illicit drugs or prescription medication. Now that number is up to 10 percent or more, Falgier said, a five-fold increase in five years.

“It’s definitely a public health issue,” Falgier said, “affecting not only the mothers but their unborn babies and the family as a whole.”

There are times, the NICU doctor said, that as many as a third or more of the babies in the NICU unit are “drug-dependent babies.”

“They don’t have addictive disease like the mother, they have dependent disease,” she explained. “Their bodies are dependent on the drugs, mostly opiates.”

The opiate class of drugs includes heroin, methadone, opium, morphine and other prescription painkillers including OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin and codeine.

Drug-dependent babies often have to stay in the NICU for longer periods of time than other babies, as they are weaned off whatever drug (or combination of drugs) their tiny bodies were ingesting in the womb.

“The goal is to get them to be a normal baby,” Falgier said. “So they don’t need drugs. So they aren’t irritable and they are able to sleep properly, be calm.”

Rather than using methadone to wean babies born to opiate-addicted mothers, Falgier said the hospital has moved to using more short-acting medications such as Suboxone or Subutex. While doctors could decrease a methadone dose only on a weekly basis, they can do it every 24 to 48 hours with the other medications, she explained, getting the baby off the drugs and out of the hospital more quickly. Families are then encouraged to go to the NICU follow-up clinic.

“Of course we don’t want (addiction) to occur in the first place, but the reality is that it does,” Falgier said. “And it’s a significant problem that affects the health of the mother, the family, the baby and any other children.

“It’s not a happy picture.”