Tolland mom working with Courtney to help opioid addicts
When Justice Croutch graduated from Tolland High School five years ago, her future looked bright.
With dazzling green eyes and a smile that lit up a room, she enrolled in a dental hygienist program, earning a 4.0-grade point average in her first year.
Now 22, Justice is in a vegetative state in a New Hampshire nursing home, needing a machine to breathe and unable to recognize her family or friends.
Two years of a heroin addiction and an underlying asthma condition are to blame.
“She was a beautiful girl,” her mother Jennifer Kelly said this week while clutching a photo of her daughter before the tragedy. “This really is so senseless.”
Sadly, it’s not uncommon.
According to state figures, from 2012 to 2015 deaths from heroin overdoses rose from 174 to 444, or 155 percent, across Connecticut.
Nationally, death rates from prescription opioid pain reliever overdoses quadrupled during 1999 to 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, whereas rates for heroin overdoses increased 50 percent.
Ample and cheap heroin supply are a contributing factor in the mortality trend, authorities say.
The lack of treatment beds and insurance coverage to sustain sobriety, combined with stigma and silence, is also cause for the sweeping upsurge.
“More people need to talk about this,” Kelly said, noting that 129 people die from overdoses everyday in this country. “If we were talking about cancer, or if that were a plane full of people that crashed every day, somebody would be doing something.”
Courtney takes up the cause
U.S. Rep. Joseph D. Courtney, D-2nd District, says Congress is moving “somewhat glacially” on the issue.
There have been a series of bills that have passed the House and are awaiting Senate approval, and President Barack Obama has set aside $1.1 billion in funding in the proposed 2017 federal budget for preventive measures and treatment beds. But that money is questionable with the election fast approaching, Courtney admits.
“We have emergency funding for Zika and Ebola, but not this,” Courtney says, adding, “not to make light of those, but this certainly ranks on par, at least.”
He says there should be more advanced practical nurses allowed to prescribe and administer methadone and suboxone, drugs that help with detox withdrawal. Also, Connecticut’s recently passed legislation allowing doctors to prescribe only seven days of painkillers at a time should be nationally adopted, along with a monitoring system that links states’ data to prevent addicts from doctor shopping across state lines.
For those who balk at the cost, Courtney and Kelly both point to the current price being paid.
“It’s really starting to impact hospitals and medical finances, and that has a ripple effect,” Courtney says, noting Justice’s nursing home care bill as an example. Preventive therapies cost “a heck of a lot less than a tertiary intensive care unit.”
But in order to get funding to fight this scourge, people have to come out of the shadows and talk about this, says Courtney, who presented Justice and Kelly's stories on the floor of the House last month. Kelly also testified before a packed congressional hearing last week, “and you could’ve heard a pin drop,” Courtney says.
“Her message should resonate,” he adds. “We’re talking about a suburban kid living in a community the family chose with the hope that it was safe and healthy, and even there the reach of this epidemic captured her daughter.”
Growing up, Justice loved to write poetry, make artistic jewelry, and was a ham in front of the camera, earning the nickname Cindy Lou Who. Kelly said her daughter loved to sing and dance, had a close relationship with her parents and siblings, and enjoyed traveling with family.
She had a soft-spot for stray animals bringing home three that still reside at the family’s Tolland condo: Max, a marmalade colored cat; Zoey, a fluffy gray tabby; and Jax, a tortoise-colored puppy.
“We thought she’d wind up being the old crazy cat lady some day,” Kelly said with a chuckle.
Many thought she was pretty enough to model for a living, but Justice struggled with anxiety and depression, Kelly said. She got counseling and was on medication, but after graduating high school, influences from a new boyfriend led her to make bad decisions.
Within a year, at the age of 19, she had moved out and began self-medicating with heroin. Her mother found out the following summer when she saw the telltale-tracks and bruises on her arms.
Justice had left the boyfriend and returned home in 2013, noticeably thinner but otherwise the same. Except she always wore long sleeves, even on the hottest days, saying it was required by her work, Kelly said. Spoons would mysteriously disappear without explanation, and sometimes Kelly would catch her “nodding out,” but Justice told her worried mother she was tired from school and work.
“I didn’t know the signs,” Kelly said, her face melting into a frown.
Confronted with the evidence, Croutch admitted she had a problem, and went into a five-day, inpatient detox program in Hartford.
She checked out after four days, was put on methadone, and Kelly said she thought that would be the end of the story.
There was no counseling, no meetings, and no support afterward. Methadone was the only treatment that insurance or Medicaid would cover, Kelly said.
Still, Justice started to turn around her life, getting a job as a cashier and returning home under strict rules that she continue rehab and ditch the boyfriend for good.
It wasn’t long before Justice relapsed, however, and was sneaking the boyfriend into the house and stealing Kelly’s debit card.
Justice’s parents considered having her arrested, but on the advice of local police they instead took out a restraining order.
Effectively homeless, Justice continued to stay in touch with family using a cellphone her parents provided.
“That summer, she was a real mess,” Kelly said. “She came over one day and laid on the couch and begged for help.
“I called every detox and rehab facility I could find but there were no beds,” Kelly said. After a few hours, “she got up and left and I knew I had lost her forever.”
That July, Justice had her purse stolen, losing her lifesaving asthma inhaler.
Insurance wouldn’t cover the $200 cost for a new one as it wasn’t yet time for a refill.
Days later, her mother took her to the pharmacy for a refill and brought her home to rest. Justice went to her old bedroom and suddenly began screaming and gasping for air, Kelly said.
Near hysteria, Kelly threw Justice into the car and headed to Rockville General Hospital in Vernon just a few miles away. By the time they pulled into the parking lot Justice had turned blue and collapsed from lack of oxygen.
Nurses and emergency crews rushed to her aid, and she was placed on a ventilator and put in a medically induced coma.
At first doctors were optimistic that Justice would survive without suffering any brain injury. But after some time, it became clear that wasn’t the case.
Confused, the family fought for a second opinion and had Justice transferred by Life Star to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield.
But the prognosis there was the same.
She is now in the only nursing home that would take her — a 2½-hour drive from home — where only comfort for care is being provided.
“I just wasn’t ready to give up on my daughter,” said Kelly, who realizes that in the near future, Justice will be taken off her ventilator and feeding tube and die.
Primarily as a way to cope, Kelly is creating a nonprofit organization in the hope of ending the stigma of addiction.
Drug addiction doesn’t discriminate, she said. It can touch any person, any family, rich, poor, educated, or unschooled.
“We lost four kids that August, not including Justice,” to overdose in Tolland, Kelly said. Justice’s best friend has lost seven people to the addiction plague.
“What is this doing to a whole generation of kids and families,” she asked.
Kelly is trying to spread awareness and information at local schools, various neighborhood gatherings, and talking with any group that will have her, much like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, did when that organization started 35 years ago. She also wants to organize positive role models to speak to girls aged 12 to 17 to give them options.
And she is looking to sell T-shirts to finance Narcan — an antidote for those who overdose on opiates — for families who can’t afford the lifesaving drug.
Kelly also needs to find a lawyer willing to do pro-bono work and help her incorporate as a nonprofit.
The bottom line, however, is we need funding, treatment beds, and better programs and services, Kelly said. Addiction is a lifelong battle with a high percentage rate of relapse at some point, she noted. But that doesn’t mean it’s an unsolvable problem.
Her group is hosting a rally Aug. 31 from 4 to 6 p.m. in Center Memorial Park in Manchester for International Overdose Awareness Day.
For more information on Kelly’s organization, go to