- Joe Capozzi Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
No matter how many desperate nights she spent searching the streets for her adult daughter, Johnnie Easton almost always reported to work every morning with a reason to hope.
A Palm Beach County Commission aide for 13 years, Easton worked in an office on the top floor of the county Governmental Center in downtown West Palm Beach. She had convenient access to high-ranking policymakers, many of whom she knew on a first-name basis.
At first, she was reluctant to seek their help. Was that even ethical? Could it get her fired? And did she really want her co-workers knowing the ugly details of her daughter Tasha’s addiction to pain pills?
Eventually, though, Easton got so desperate that she started reaching out to her co-workers for help.
Off and on for more than five years, she fired off phone calls and emails detailing problems she and other families of addicts were experiencing with the system — in particular, the slow pace of the court process for involuntarily committing addicts and the lack of beds for economically strapped addicts.
She got sympathetic replies but the system never really changed.
Then one morning in November, while she was home getting ready for work, came a phone call that Easton had always dreaded — her adult daughter, Tasha McCraw, was dead of a suspected drug overdose. Tasha was 33.
As the opioid crisis continues to claim thousands of lives, Easton’s struggles underscore the daunting challenges faced by families in Palm Beach County and Florida trying to navigate the complex and often slow legal process for getting help from public agencies.
If a respected civil servant with connections to the highest levels of county government couldn’t quickly get help, how could anyone else?
“I couldn’t believe it, me being in the job I was in and connected to the right people. I knew who to call, but if you don’t work in government how in God’s name would you ever know?” she said in an interview.
“I watched my honor-graduate daughter disintegrate before my eyes over the last 12 years and was absolutely powerless. It was as if my hands were tied.”
‘Why didn’t I do something sooner?’
Easton doesn’t blame county officials for her daughter’s death. She knows that many key solutions can be made only by the state Legislature. But she wonders if a more dedicated and concerted response to her years of inquiries might have led to a different outcome.
“I’m angry and I think I have the right to be angry. She didn’t have to die. None of these people have to die,” she said, choking back tears.
“There’s just a lack of understanding of the problem. It’s so preventable. There is help to be had. You just can’t get it.”
Prompted by Tasha’s death, which came just two days before The Palm Beach Post published an extensive investigation into the epidemic’s toll, county and state officials are taking a closer look.
Leading the charge is Easton’s former boss, Commissioner Melissa McKinlay. Less than a week after Tasha died, McKinlay directed county staff to come up with recommendations for fighting the opioid crisis. On April 4, the County Commission will consider several options.
McKinlay also has been lobbying the state for changes, including answers to the questions Easton had been asking for eight years.
“Since that horrible day in November when … Tasha had been found on the floor dead of a suspected overdose in a kitchen in some faraway apartment, I have lived with the guilt,” McKinlay wrote in a Palm Beach Post column last month.
“Why didn’t I do something sooner?”
‘You and me against the world’
The court filings and police reports detailing Tasha McCraw’s 12-year struggle with addiction don’t paint a complete picture of her life. It was often filled with happiness, beauty, compassion and wit.
She was born on the Fourth of July in 1983 “with a battle cry that she spent the next 33 years perfecting,” Easton would write in her daughter’s obituary.
Fashion, makeup and social-media selfies — all were hallmarks of an outgoing personality that prompted Easton to nickname her daughter “Little Miss New York.”
She wrote poetry and took in stray animals. If she saw a homeless person, she’d raid the kitchen pantry and deliver a care package.
“The phrase I heard most often from her was, ‘Why doesn’t anyone care?’ This was my kid,” Easton said.
“Nobody will ever know the love this woman had in her heart for other people and how she loved helping someone else.”
She had several Facebook pages. She peppered them with photos depicting images of happiness and beauty — a moon over the ocean, a hummingbird nibbling flowers, puppies — along with a seemingly endless stream of selfies with family and friends. “I love You mom! You and me against the world :)” read a photo of Tasha and Easton posted in May 2014.
She graduated with honors from Wellington High School in 2001 and enlisted in the Army with plans to work as a combat medic. But a childhood leg injury resurfaced during her advanced training and led to her discharge in fall 2001.
She wasn’t using then, Easton said — her addiction stemmed from a car accident in 2004.
Tasha, who had suffered from scoliosis throughout her life, was a passenger in a car that was hit by another car in Georgia. She injured her back and neck and was prescribed Percocet, which contains the highly addictive painkiller Oxycodone.
Two years later, she struggled with depression after her uncle died. She started seeing a psyciatrist, who prescribed her Xanax.
“Once she was hooked on the pain pills and Xanax, it was pretty much ‘Katy bar the door’ when you try to take them away.”
Over the years, Easton would call Tasha’s doctors and pharmacies to complain, pleading with them to scale back Tasha’s prescriptions.
She said one of the doctors who prescribed pain pills to Tasha was John Christensen, who, in cases unrelated to Tasha, was sentenced to four years in prison in connection with two overdose deaths.
When Tasha’s addiction issues surfaced, Easton said she and her then-husband used their insurance and spent thousands of dollars to get Tasha into private treatment. But when she turned 27, she no longer qualified to be on her parent’s insurance, leaving her to rely on public services.
Fighting bureaucracy to get treatment
As Tasha’s life spiraled out of control, Easton would file more than a dozen Marchman Act and Baker Act petitions to involuntary commit her daughter into treatment.
Easton’s main issue is with the Marchman Act, which provides a procedure for people to seek help from the court for a friend or loved one who has a substance abuse problem. The Baker Act deals with mental health.
If a family member files a Marchman petition, the court can order the person to undergo an involuntary assessment for substance abuse. If the assessment determines that the person needs intensive help, a judge can order the person into treatment for up to 60 days.
If no bed is available, the person is placed on a waiting list.
The process requires court hearings, often several weeks apart. And the wait for a bed can be even longer in Palm Beach County, where there are fewer than two dozen county-funded indigent beds.
Many addicts relapse while waiting, a problem Easton faced many times with Tasha.
The county has pushed for several changes to the Marchman Act over the years, but none dealt with Easton’s request for a faster process.
“The Marchman Act allows the court to take someone against their will and put them into a facility. That means it’s an emergency. But the quickest I’ve ever got her in was 29 days after I filed the paper work,” Easton said.
Even when Tasha got in, she rarely completed the court-ordered treatment.
“I can’t tell you how many times I pulled her off the streets. She’d be wandering down Palm Beach Lakes, Okeechobee (boulevards),” Easton said.
One day in 2012, Easton found Tasha stumbling through traffic near Congress Avenue in Palm Springs. She ran after her as the police arrived.
“All the cops saw was me dragging her out of the street, so we both got arrested,” Easton said. “I told the cop, ‘If you have to arrest both of us, do it. At least she will be in a safe place.”’
One time, Tasha was stabbed by a dealer. Another time, she was thrown out of a car on the shoulder of Interstate 95.
One night, Easton received a call from her daughter’s cellphone. “I don’t know if she pocket-dialed me or dialed me on purpose,” Easton recalled. “She was in a car with the dealer. I could hear them arguing. Then it got physical and I could hear her screaming for him to stop and the phone goes dead.”
By 2010, Easton’s desperation overcame any reservations she had about seeking help from her co-workers in the county Governmental Center.
“I thought I was going to lose my job if I opened my mouth,” she said. “In the beginning I didn’t believe (Tasha’s addiction) was a disease. I thought she was making a series of bad choices. With that comes shame. You don’t want anybody to know your kid was addicted to drugs, your kid was in jail. I kept it to myself and muddled through as I always did.”
‘Sorry if I’m ranting … but I’m very frustrated’
She spoke on the phone to the deputy director for the Substance Abuse Program at the Florida Department of Children and Family Services in Tallahassee. She followed up by sending him at least two emails. One email included sentences written in all-caps to emphasize her frustration.
“WHEN A FAMILY MEMBER HAS TO RESORT TO GOING THROUGH THE COURTS TO FORCE THEIR LOVED ONE TO GET LIFE-SAVING HELP, THEY NEED HELP IMMEDIATELY … NOT … AND I REPEAT, NOT 30+ DAYS LATER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
“Sorry if I’m ranting … but I’m very frustrated with the process.”
The deputy director at the time, David Overstreet, spoke with Easton and invited her to a public meeting in Tampa to share her experiences with judges and other policy makers. When Easton wrote that she couldn’t attend the meeting, Overstreet replied: “I will be sure to share your personal story with our group as I am sure, unfortunately, you are not alone.”
Two years later she sent an email to Assistant County Administrator Jon Van Arnam: “Jon, If there are suggestions being taken regarding the services needed for Marchman Act clients, I’d like to get in line to offer suggestions.” She signed it with a smiley face emoji.
After Van Arnam responded by saying he would pass her offer on to department heads, Easton sent a four-page letter similar to the one she’d sent Overstreet detailing her experiences.
“I’ve had the misfortune to gain more insight into this process than I ever wanted,” she wrote. “I cannot begin to explain here what a parent must endure to keep the child from ending their life with drugs while we wait for the court dates.”
Eventually, she said, people in the addiction recovery community got word about her connections in county government and her efforts. They asked for her help. “But there was nothing to tell them,” she said.
Despite her own struggles, Tasha crusaded, too, on behalf of friends she met in the addiction community. When she was seeking treatment, she became close with Tyler Etue, a New Jersey man who came to South Florida to get treatment for substance abuse.
In July 2015, Etue was found dead in a trash can in downtown Lake Worth. Tasha helped launch a small fundraiser that grew into a charity scholarship in Tyler’s name with Aion Recovery Group in Delray Beach for addicts who don’t have insurance.
“I wanted it to be in Tyler’s name so that his legacy could live on by helping someone else,” Tasha told NJ.com last March.
In September, Tasha sought a change of scenery and moved to Oswego, N.Y., where a boyfriend worked. She continued to fight her addiction and was waiting for a treatment bed in New York when she suffered the fatal overdose in her apartment.
Now, Easton said she will always wonder: Would her daughter still be alive if the court process had gotten her into treatment quicker?
“Only in sobriety can (addicts) think and reason,” Easton said. “If she had had more sober time, she would have a much, much greater chance at long-term recovery.’’
‘Someone else’s child might be saved’
Among the 50 people who attended a candlelight vigil for Tasha at Boynton Inlet Park in December was Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Mike Gauger, whom Easton described as a longtime family friend.
“I’ve never met a parent who worked so hard to help their child through recovery and poured the love and caring into helping her obtain the things (Tasha) needed,” Gauger said.
“Tasha was a beautiful girl inside and she struggled immensely with this disease. We are losing more people to drug addiction than car accidents and homicides. It’s a societal problem that needs to be addressed by our government.”
After Tasha died, Easton emailed county officials with a kind note thanking them for their “outpouring of support” and announcing her resignation.
“I will not be returning to the office but please know that I appreciate everything you have done for me and for my daughter,” she wrote.
“No good will ever come from furthering the stigma of mental health and substance abuse by knowingly accepting the status quo. These are human beings struggling daily, hourly and many times minute by minute with something most people will never fully understand. Somebody has to push — and keep pushing — for changes. I hope one of you will.”
She left Florida in January and moved to Mississippi with her cat and dog. They live on a 30-acre tract of a farm that has been in her family since 1905.
When she’s not tending to her fields of kale, potatoes, garlic and onions, she’s at her computer continuing her crusade.
She was recently named executive director for the non-profit Southern Recovery Advocacy. And she still sends emails to Palm Beach County leaders asking them to lobby for change.
“There is no magic solution to be had, but I know personally that changes can and will make a life-saving difference,” she said in an email Jan. 7 to all seven county commissioners, two county managers, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw and Clerk and Comptroller Sharon Bock.
“It’s too late for my daughter, but someone else’s child might be saved.”