The needle in the family tree Family Glossary

The needle in the family tree

From children to grandparents, whole families are caught up in the opioid crisis

Keeley and the Vial

T.J. Ashbaugh fastens the hair of his stepdaughter Emily, 3, at bedtime at their home in North Vandergrift. In the top bunk, his eight-year-old daughter Keeley waits her turn. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

The needle in the family tree

From children to grandparents, whole families are caught up in the opioid crisis

Keeley and the Vial

 

April 30, 2018

Story by Rich Lord

Photography by
Stephanie Strasburg

Part 1 of 2

Part 2 | Opioids swamping child welfare system

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Keeley's Family Tree

Keeley Ashbaugh | 8

Danielle McClain | 46

Relationship to Keeley: Grandmother

Lives: North Versailles

Thomas “T.J.” Ashbaugh Jr. | 26

Relationship to Keeley: Father

Lives: North Vandergrift

Katelyn Kathleen Ashbaugh | 24

Relationship to Keeley: Stepmother

Lives: North Vandergrift

Delores Jane Dimartino | 27

Relationship to Keeley: Mother

Lives: Unknown

Ricky Lee McClain II | 28

Relationship to Keeley: Uncle

Lived: North Versailles

Grace Wright | 11

Relationship to Keeley: Aunt

Lives: North Versailles

Brittney Sperl | 29

Relationship to Keeley: Uncle's ex

Lives: Natrona Heights

Carter McClain | 8

Relationship to Keeley: Cousin

Lives: Natrona Heights

Share your story on the opioid epidemic

Reporter Rich Lord and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette want to hear how your family has been affected by the opioid epidemic. Your responses will be considered for publication. Email rlord@post-gazette.com with any questions or concerns you might have before sharing your stories.

Keeley Ashbaugh puts one hand on the arm of the couch, another on the electric fireplace, and pushes up with her thin arms so that her feet are inches off the floor. And then, because 8-year-olds don’t stay still, she swings her feet back, forward, back, forward, all the while babbling about a relative’s kitten, which is, oddly, named Puppy.

That’s the kind of thing Keeley loves to talk about: her cat named Oliver (a female), the book “Magic Puppy” and its shrinking and growing protagonist, the FlipaZoo plush mouse her sister got for her birthday, little toys called Shopkins and Shoppets from “Pawville” ...

Then, from the clutter of toys on the coffee table, she grabs something shiny.

“There’s Ricky,” she says, holding a necklace on which hangs a tiny metal vial. She lays the little cylinder gently on the soft belly of the FlipaZoo. “I’m going to put him right here.”

Keeley doesn’t realize that she represents the next front in the battle against the opioid epidemic. She’s part of a wave of children whose innocent years have been complicated -- often tragically -- by the pills, heroin and fentanyl that have surged through the hills of Appalachia, even reaching this street in little North Vandergrift, Armstrong County.

Share your story on the opioid epidemic

Reporter Rich Lord and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette want to hear how your family has been affected by the opioid epidemic.
Share your story.

Keeley leans down from her bunk bed to kiss her stepsister Emily goodnight at their home in North Vandergrift. Keeley has settled into a more structured life since her father vowed to leave drugs behind to marry her stepmother. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

Keeley, left, plays with her stepsisters Hailey Porter, center, and Emily as they try to squeeze into a toy house. The girls play with their tablet games, toys, and dress up as they entertain themselves while T.J. cooks dinner. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

Kids like Keeley have endured trauma and instability, and likely have inherited a vulnerability to addiction, putting them at risk. Child welfare systems, meanwhile, are straining to meet the needs of kids whose parents haven’t recovered.

Keeley is surrounded by people who know the opioid threat intimately, and are determined to keep it away from her. But there’s only so much they can control.

Back between the couch and fireplace, Keeley’s legs swing forward, and then back. Then one hand slips, and she’s on the floor, gasping, the wind knocked out of her. In a few seconds she’s up, on the couch, wrapped in her father’s fuzzy, gray blanket. Momentarily voiceless, she’s nodding at the questions of her stepmother, the third woman to care for her in a bumpy life that has just begun.

Keeley pulls her stepsister Emily from the window at their home in North Vandergrift. “I won’t let my kids go in anyone else’s house," says Keeley's stepmom, Kate, after stamp bags were found under a mattress at a neighbor's house. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

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T.J. pauses from peeling potatoes for dinner to help Keeley with her homework. Behind them, Emily keeps herself busy with her toys. T.J. spends the weekdays caring for four girls, two cats and one dog, in the rent-to-own house he shares with his wife. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

“I sprained my ankle the other day,” Keeley announces. She tripped on a step, she explains, then starts hopping, on one foot, across the living room. “I was doing this all day. It was a good workout.”

Those stairs have been a challenge ever since Thomas “T.J.” Ashbaugh Jr. moved his family, including his daughter Keeley, into this three-bedroom rent-to-own house in North Vandergrift in August. The place was a wreck -- sagging floor, bad paint jobs, holes in the walls. In a house with four girls, ranging from infant Addyson to Keeley, all of that would have to wait. First, the stairs needed a railing.

T.J. had no cash. So he went out back and cut down some tree branches. Pretty soon, he had an utterly unique banister -- and it’s just a little wobbly.

 * 

There was a brief time, years back, during which T.J. had no money troubles. Someone handed him a “brick” -- 50 stamp bags of heroin -- to sell. Suddenly he went from being a scrappy kid to a player with the power to buy new sneakers and jeans whenever he wanted.

Then, one day, he sampled the merchandise.

“It was awesome at first. I loved the high,” T.J. says. Keeley’s mother, Delores Jane Dimartino, now 27, took to it, too, he says.

T.J. leans over his stepdaughter Emily as she kisses a necklace holding the ashes of his late brother, Ricky, in what has become their bedtime routine. Each night at bedtime, T.J., his daughter and stepdaughters repeat the same refrain to each other, "Goodnight, peace out, deuces, love you, sweet dreams." (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

“It all went downhill, just slowly downhill,” T.J. says. The slide accelerated when he started shooting up. “And then, that was a wrap. … I ended up selling everything I had to make money, so I didn’t end up sick.”

As Keeley learned to walk and talk, T.J. became accustomed to arrests for theft, fighting, trespassing and various schemes. In 2013, as Keeley approached her fourth birthday, T.J. and Delores both faced jail time -- she for forgery, drug possession and getting drugs by fraud.

That round of trouble persuaded T.J. to quit heroin. He said he hasn’t used the drug since October 2013, and he’s been in a medication-assisted treatment program for much of that time. His recovery was fragile in early 2014, when he got a job at Golden Corral in Monroeville. He had enough confidence, though, to promptly hit on waitress Katelyn Kathleen Kohlhoff.

“I saw T.J. struggle and I gave him two months,” says Kate. The ultimatum helped to keep him from relapsing.

“It’s the female that got me right,” T.J. confirms.

Kate Ashbaugh holds her daughter Addyson, 1, as she looks toward her daughter Emily, and husband, T.J. They met while working at Golden Corral in Monroeville in early 2014, at a time when his recovery from drug addiction was still fragile. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

T.J. picks up his daughter Addyson from his mother's house in North Versailles. He drops her off there when he goes into Pittsburgh for his medication-assisted treatment program. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

They married in 2016, and last year took custody of Keeley, who fell right in with Kate’s daughters Hailey, 5, and Emily, 3. The 8-year-old is like a second mom to Addyson, 1.

T.J., now 26, has had what he calls “hiccups” in his recovery, including some that led to charges of assault and theft, and one that cost him a job testing concrete. “I hate not having to get up in the morning, do something,” he says.

Kate, meanwhile, works four 10-hour days per week as a patient case coordinator, answering questions about medications. While she’s gone, T.J. has four girls, two cats, one dog, often no car, and a mailbox full of notices about court costs and fines he’s supposed to pay off, somehow.

On good days, he throws himself into the three-bedroom house, patching holes in the walls, painting, fixing appliances, jacking up the basement ceiling. “I’ve got to build closets and a bed frame,” he says, with a slight snarl.

On this afternoon, though, he has no energy for that. As Keeley hops between the girls and toys and Kate returns after a long day away, he slips on a black hoodie decorated with the golden word “Savage,” then collapses on his bed.

"We will have money" reads the red ink beside the appointment reminders and love notes written on the Ashbaugh family calendar. That's how Kate Ashbaugh stays on top of the due dates for her husband's court fines. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

 

Keeley Ashbaugh uses a torn heart sticker to make a mustache as she plays with her stepsisters in February at their home in North Vandergrift. Keeley now lives with her father, who is in recovery, her stepmother and a combined family of two stepsisters and a half-sister. She has seen her birth mother only a few times since Christmas 2015. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

“Just last night, I was taking Keeley [home],” says Danielle McClain, T.J.’s mom. “And Keeley was so sweet. She said, ‘Do you miss my mommy?’ I said, ‘Of course I miss your mommy.’”

Sometimes, Keeley calls Kate “mom.” Other times, though, she calls her Kate. “She just feels funny calling [Kate] her mom,” explains Danielle, “because she feels like she’s betraying her other mom.”

On that ride home, Keeley’s thoughts had turned to that “other mom.” She’s not the only one who wishes she knew where Delores Dimartino is now.

 * 

“Before the drugs took over, [Delores] was a great mom,” says Bianca Dimartino, who has occasionally allowed her sister to stay in her home in Pittsburgh. “When she started getting high, it just took over and she lost everything.”

Court records suggest that after 2013, as T.J. got clean, Delores’ slide continued.

“She’s still upset and hurt. … You can never replace your mother.”

In 2014, police accused Delores and Ricky Lee McClain II -- T.J.’s brother -- of stealing electronics from an apartment. The following year, she was accused of possessing drugs while in the Armstrong County Jail. In 2016, she was arrested for entering the Tarentum Walmart after she had been barred by the theft prevention staff.

Also in 2016, investigators accused Delores of overbilling the state in her role as personal care attendant for her mother, charging the state for services on dates on which her mother was hospitalized, and even after her mother’s 2014 death. She pleaded guilty, served eight months in jail, then violated her parole by failing to make payments or report her whereabouts. Westmoreland County has issued a warrant for her arrest.

Where is she? “I actually have filed a missing person’s report,” Bianca said in late March.

Keeley has seen Delores just a few times since Christmas 2015. That may be for the better, says T.J. “The memories she’s got are good memories.”

The family tries to explain it all to Keeley.

“I think she’s a lot more understanding and she knows that her mom’s sick and that it’s not her fault,” says Kate. “She’s still upset and hurt. … You can never replace your mother.”

Emily plays on a tablet at T.J.'s feet as they wait for Keeley to come home from school. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

 

T.J. plays with his daughter Addyson as his mother Danielle McClain holds her at McClain's home. T.J. drops the baby off at his mother's house on Thursdays when he goes into Pittsburgh as part of his medication-assisted treatment program. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

When T.J. and Delores were simultaneously locked up in late 2013, and another relative asked Danielle to take Keeley, the timing wasn’t great.

Danielle was three years into recovery from opioid dependence. She had a 5-year-old daughter, a son in his early teens, and T.J. and Ricky to worry about. That wasn’t the worst of it.

“I had just quit smoking,” Danielle says. “I’m going to pull my damn hair out.”

She barely knew her 4-year-old granddaughter, Keeley. And it seemed she’d have to start from scratch.

“She had no shoes,” Danielle says. “When I went to the house to pick her things up, the place was disgusting. I wouldn’t want anything from there.”

After years in a heroin house, Keeley “wasn’t used to the structure,” says Danielle. “There was a lot of crying, a lot of whining. … We put up with some of her temper tantrums.” After a while, that faded. “She noticed that we loved her.”

 * 

Danielle, now 46, had an inkling of the forces undermining the parenting efforts of T.J. and Delores.

Danielle was prescribed painkillers in 2009, while battling cancer. Her doctors progressed her quickly to Opana, a powerful opioid. “What were they thinking?” she asks now. “I trusted you, and you made me physically dependent on the stuff.”

When she had pills, she ably tended to her fourth child, Grace Wright, who was in diapers, and then-teenage son Nick Ashbaugh, while keeping tabs on T.J. and Ricky.

Danielle keeps the ashes of her late son, Ricky, in a glass cabinet by her front door in North Versailles. Danielle found Ricky face down in his basement bedroom in her home on Halloween morning of 2017. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

But when she ran out of pills? “That drug is so powerful, that when you don’t have it anymore, you want to die,” she says. “You have so much laundry to do, you need to get up and do that laundry. … I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t parent.”

Ricky stole some of her pills here and there, she says. Increasingly, she ran through her prescriptions too quickly. She’d scrounge up extra pills. “It’s just a miracle that I didn’t touch heroin, because that was the next step,” she says.

It got to the point that some pharmacies were seeing her face too often, getting concerned, even suspicious. So one day in November 2010, she sent Nick, then 14, to a pharmacy with a prescription and hundreds of dollars in his pocket.

She’d already been relying on Nick to address Grace’s needs during her occasional withdrawals. “Nicholas, could you please make Oodles of Noodles? Could you please change that diaper?” she’d ask him, and he’d do it. But sending him to the pharmacy, loaded with cash, to pick up narcotics? “I couldn’t believe what I did.”

So she quit, for Nick and Grace. “I did not want to ruin her life or my son’s life,” she says. She went through a weekend of wrenching withdrawal -- “I don’t even remember who was watching [Grace],” she says -- then went to her doctor for help the following Monday.

She cared for Keeley on and off for four years. Now she’s a home care provider, working toward her master’s degree in health care administration. She lives in a tidy duplex in North Versailles with Grace, a border collie mix named Gunner, a guinea pig named Noodle, and her own mother in the other unit.

She beat her dependence. But the opioid cloud would not blow away.

Danielle, far right, flicks the ear of her son, Nick Ashbaugh, 22, while her other son, T.J., far left, picks up his daughter from their house after his weekly trek to pick up Suboxone. On the floor, McClain's daughter, Grace, holds her niece, Addyson. Behind T.J. is an urn with the ashes of McClain's oldest son, Ricky, who died of a drug overdose. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

 

The door on the right showcases the good grades that Grace, left, earns. The doorway is the last place her mother, Danielle, saw her son alive. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

“You know who Grace is?” Keeley asks, amazed and thrilled, when a reporter mentions her 11-year-old aunt.

She loves visiting Grace. “We play, and she got a new bunk bed,” Keeley says. “My daddy made it. … We color sometimes, and she curls my hair. She’s 11 and has a lot of makeup.”

Grace has been “a role model for Keeley,” says Danielle. But sometimes knowledge flows the other way.

One day, according to Danielle, Keeley found a needle. She showed it to Grace, who asked what it was for. Keeley told Grace “that’s stuff for drugs,” says Danielle. Grace’s response: “I don’t believe it.”

 * 

When Ricky stole 11 Opana pills from his mother in 2010, the street price of a fistful of powerful prescription opioids was in the hundreds of dollars. Ricky loved getting high but also liked the things that money could buy: Nike Air Force 1 shoes, brand-new jeans, fancy belts, anything black and gold, and street drugs.

Ricky had a tattoo on one arm that read: “Pain is Weakness Leaving Your Body.” He was brutally blunt and always ready to fight -- or dance.

“He was always dancing and singing and didn't care what anyone thought,” says Brittney Sperl, who started dating him in 2008. “He could always make you laugh.”

"In the beginning, when I first found out I was pregnant, he was the one that was more excited about it ...”

When Britt met Ricky, he had a son with whom he had little contact. When Britt told him that she was going to have their baby, though, Ricky danced into fatherhood.

"In the beginning, when I first found out I was pregnant, he was the one that was more excited about it, and reading the what-to-expect books, that kind of thing,” says Britt. After the birth, as she worked and studied nursing, Ricky took care of little Carter, tickling his feet with his goatee, taking him to parks up and down the Allegheny Valley.

Then something changed. "I started noticing he was taking a lot of money out of my bank account,” Britt says. “First he said it was just for weed. ... But then it started to be a lot more money.”

Eventually, he admitted he was using heroin.

Ricky “always swore up and down that he never did it with Carter around, or with me around,” Britt says, and she never saw him “nodding off or anything like that." But after he was arrested repeatedly in 2013, Britt and Carter moved in with her mother. She later married another man.

Ricky had first flirted with opioids years before. “It didn’t start with pills for him,” says Danielle. “Ricky went across the street and tried heroin with a friend.”

By 2013, addiction set in, and Ricky was bouncing between jail -- on charges including drug distribution, simple assault, criminal mischief, receiving stolen property, driving while high, escape and fleeing or eluding police -- and the home of his childhood buddy Christopher “Fattymont” Smith on Kittanning’s Victory Street. Ricky was in jail in October 2015 when Chris died, at age 25, from an overdose of heroin and fentanyl.

“It crushed him,” says T.J. “He said, ‘That was my best friend. I’ll never do that again.’ … He was done” with heroin.

But in April 2016, Danielle and Nick had to revive Ricky using the anti-overdose drug naloxone and CPR. Two months later, police arrested Ricky after he sold stamp bags marked “Green Light” to an informant. He emerged from jail in mid-2017, settling into his mother’s basement, a 28-year-old with no meaningful job history, a long rap sheet and that itch that wouldn’t quit.

“When he got out of jail, I knew he was dabbling,” in drugs, says T.J. “He said, ‘Mom’s being a bitch.’ I said, ‘Yeah, she doesn’t want to come down and find you dead.’”

“It crushed him. ‘That was my best friend. I’ll never do that again.’ … He was done.”

Lecturing Ricky had never done any good. “A mom can sit there and tell her child a thousand times, ‘You’re going to die, stop doing this,’” Danielle says. “But they’re not going to stop until their bucket is full. … When your bucket gets full, something just clicks in your brain.”

Ricky had a Halloween evening appointment to get a shot of Vivitrol, an injected form of naltrexone that prevents the user from getting high from opioids for around a month. “Once he got the shot, we were going to breathe a sigh of relief,” she says.

On Devil’s Night, Danielle recounts, “He said, ‘You know I love you, Grace, right?’” Then he went into the basement, to bed.

On Halloween morning, a little after 7 a.m., Danielle found him in bed, face down. Something was wrong. She tried to shake him awake. “His arm was cold. I rubbed the top of his head. I said, ‘No, this can’t be true.’”

Before she broke down, there was a moment of simple disappointment. "I was like, Ricky, really?"

The medical examiner later ruled that he died from "drug intoxication of fentanyl and cocaine.”

Danielle keeps the ashes of her late son, Ricky, in a glass cabinet with his last pack of Newport cigarettes and his always meticulously clean Air Force 1 sneakers at her home in North Versailles. Danielle found Ricky in his bedroom at her home on Halloween morning of 2017. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

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A photo of Ricky McClain and girlfriend Brittney Sperl kissing their son Carter hangs at Ricky's grandmother's house. Before cremating Ricky, his family held a viewing, in part so Carter, now 8, could get a last look at the father he hadn’t seen since 2014. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

When T.J. told Keeley that her uncle had died, he says, “She was freaking out, screaming, crying, 'What happened, what happened?' I said he was doing drugs. She said, 'Uncle Nick doesn’t do drugs.' I said, 'It wasn’t Nick, it was Ricky.' She calmed right down.”

“I thought Nick died, but he didn’t,” Keeley explains, as she holds the necklace with the vial full of Ricky’s ashes. “It was Ricky.”

Keeley never really got to know Ricky. Still, the family thought it was important that she understand what killed her uncle -- the same disease that gripped her grandmother, upended her father's life, and turned her mother into a missing person.

“When we sat down and told Keeley about Ricky, we didn’t sugarcoat it,” says T.J. “I just straight-up told her everything.”

Stepmother Kate says she knows that genetics, early dislocations and the persistent availability of drugs conspire against Keeley. “It scares me.”

 * 

Before cremating Ricky, the family held a viewing, in part so Carter, 8, could get a last look at the father he hadn’t seen since 2014.

When Carter saw a memorial video crafted by Nick, "it really hit him," Britt says. Carter still watches that video from time to time. "It's not like every day he has an episode," she says. "At a random time he'll have a breakdown, and say, 'I'll never see my dad again.'"

After the viewing, T.J. took his family home to North Vandergrift, and collapsed on his bed. “I went to lay back, and the fan spun,” he says, pointing at the ceiling fan. When he looked at the blades, he noticed a handprint on one.

A haunted fan? T.J. will say only that the handprint blade “ends up over our bed every time.”

“I won’t clean this off, either," Kate says of the fan.

Ricky’s specter affects them in other ways, too.

Last year, Keeley started playing with some new neighbor kids whose mom was rarely seen. “Every time I went to communicate with her, she was like, ‘I’m sick,’” says Kate.

T.J. stands in the doorway of the bathroom as Kate helps her daughter Emily brush her teeth at their home in North Vandergrift. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

After that family moved out, their landlord told the Ashbaughs that he found a carpet of flattened stamp bags under the bedroom mattress.

Now? “I won’t let my kids go in anyone else’s house," says Kate.

Keeley understands that there are people she and her sisters should avoid, including one neighborhood kid who smokes and has, she says, “a really messy house.”

For now, she's content to hop between her house full of sisters, grandma’s place and her school. “I love math because it’s fun and you can learn,” she says, demonstrating by filling out a worksheet of greater than and less than problems, adding tiny teeth to each of the signs.

Danielle says she wants the community, and society, to join her family on the watchtower, guarding the next generation against opioids. Kids at greater risk of addiction should have counselors and individual plans, just like kids with learning challenges, she says.

"They need to pound this, just like they do bullying," she says. “You have to beat the crap out of it. You have to hit it with everything you’ve got at once, or else it’s coming back.”

The alternative?

"It could be your son next,” she says. “This is like one, big, huge cycle.” 


Part 1 of 2

Part 2 | Opioids swamping child welfare system


Story
Rich Lord
rlord@post-gazette.com
@richelord

Photography
Stephanie Strasburg
sstrasburg@post-gazette.com
@StephStrasburg


Design, Development Zack Tanner

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