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In the coming weeks, The Bee will profile a number of local families coming to grips with opiate addiction and its repercussions in their own homes with support from the Newtown Parent Connection.
Dr James Gill, Connecticut’s chief medical examiner (ME), logged 729 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2015, and by the end of March, he had already logged 208 more to either heroin, the powerful painkiller fentanyl, or some combination of the two.
If that upward-trending number of overdose deaths continues, the ME believes Connecticut could see well over 800 deaths by year’s end.
And while a nagging stereotype of a destitute individual overdosing on cheap heroin in an urban shooting gallery still persists, the reality is quite the opposite for more and more state residents, including Newtown’s Kovack family.
While there were several signs that something was amiss with her daughter, Mindy, a formerly cheerful and lively individual with long-term career aspirations, her mother, Lynn, confessed that until her daughter was let go from a municipal job after failing a drug test in the spring of 2015, she chalked up some moderately erratic behavior to fatigue stemming from Mindy’s caring for her young children.
“There had been some marijuana use probably going back to her high school years, but we thought that was it,” Ms Kovack said.
Then came a frantic call last September from Mindy telling her mom that a state Department of Children and Families agent had just visited in response to a complaint that her children were in possible danger and that there may be evidence of heroin use in the household.
Upon learning that accusation, Ms Kovack said Mindy’s father, Scott, reacted in a manner mirroring that of many loved ones hearing similar news.
“I remember my husband saying he’d bet his annual salary that she’s not doing heroin,” Ms Kovack said. But since Mindy was pregnant with her third child, a drug test administered by her ob/gyn office revealed the agonizing truth.
“It came back positive for opiates,” Ms Kovack said, so she got the call to come and remove Mindy’s 18-month-old from the household. Mindy’s older daughter was 7, and already living with the Kovacks because the little girl had missed so many days of school the previous year.
“Maybe that was the start of it; we’ll never know,” Ms Kovack said.
Six days after her youngest was removed from the home, Mindy gave birth to her third child, who was born suffering withdrawal symptoms from the opiates in her tiny system. After a brief hold at the hospital, Mindy’s newborn also went to live with her mother and father.
No-Show At Rehab
At that point, Mindy and the children’s father, who was also living in Mindy’s home, agreed on entering a treatment program with a regional intervention facility. However, they never showed up.
“I think, instead, it gave them the opportunity to do all the partying they wanted because they had no responsibilities and they knew the children were safe with me,” Ms Kovack said.
Ms Kovack believed Mindy’s marijuana habit eventually graduated to pills, after discovering prescription Percocets for a back injury missing from her home, after her daughter visited.
“At that point, we started watching her more closely, and she was different. She would come over either very high energy or very down,” Ms Kovack said. “But I guess we assumed, as ignorant parents, that it was marijuana and pills.”
A hair analysis Mindy provided on one post-delivery visit showed she was using high doses of marijuana and opiates as far back as the beginning of her third trimester of pregnancy.
“Then it started getting worse, she started canceling visits or not showing up — and we were getting more and more leery, but still could never believe she was doing heroin,” Ms Kovack said.
Then came a call on March 11 that every parent fears.
“I saw her earlier that night and she looked horrible. She told us she was having some respiratory issues and we thought she was [lying] to us because of the constant cancellations and blowing off visits,” Ms Kovack said.
But at 10:30 that evening, Ms Kovack took a call from a local hospital saying Mindy was in the emergency room and to come as quickly as possible. Not knowing the reality of the situation, Ms Kovack left the three children with her husband, and headed out.
“As soon as I got there I knew it was serious. She was in the ICU and I was told they were still trying to revive her.”
Local emergency responders had been performing CPR on Mindy for nearly 30 minutes since they discovered her unresponsive, following a call for help, Ms Kovack said. But after all the possible medical intervention, there was nothing more that could be done.
“She was pretty much dead on arrival,” Ms Kovack said. “But they got her back long enough to get a respirator in, which gave Scott time to get down there and for us to spend some time with her before we let her go.”
Sitting at her bedside, the Kovacks began searching through Mindy’s purse and discovered packets of what they thought was cocaine. Then Mindy’s toxicology reports came back — and they were positive for acute heroin and cocaine intoxication.
The memories of a younger and so much more vibrant Mindy continue to haunt Ms Kovack, who was extremely close to her as a child after giving birth to Mindy just a few days after graduating high school.
“We had a close relationship, but things started changing after she bought her own home,” Ms Kovack said.
Mindy was on the fast track to success, having worked in the Newtown Assessor’s Office, taking a job with the Town of Monroe, and working toward becoming a municipal assessor herself.
“At that point, we started believing her boyfriend of 13 years was isolating her in an increasingly controlling relationship,” Ms Kovack said. “Before that she had moved back in with us for a period of time, even had a restraining order against him, but she always went back.”
While the future of a relationship between Mindy’s children and their father is still unclear, Ms Kovack found tremendous solace in her grief by networking with other parents who had lost children to drug overdoses in a unique support group hosted by Newtown resident Dorrie Carolan and the Newtown Parent Connection.
“Dorrie’s bereavement group, along with a book called Addict In The Family, has helped me tremendously,” Ms Kovack said.
Part of her own recovery is the thought that reaching out to her Newtown neighbors and telling her family’s story may help other parents or caregivers recognize or admit that someone they love has a real problem.
“This is what these parents need to pick up on. If your child is changing at all, you need to think the worst and backtrack from there,” Ms Kovack said. “We just thought, hey, she smoked pot in the past, and maybe started taking these pills.”
But after Mindy passed, the Kovacks got into her house and discovered it was in shambles and littered with what she said were hundreds of empty heroin packets. Then she discovered a lock box still packed with a variety of pills.
“Sometimes I beat myself up, how could we miss something like that? How do you know it’s heroin? You hear these stories and you say, ‘not my kid,’ but it was totally her,” Ms Kovack said, holding back tears.
Parent Connection Connects
Through the Parent Connection support group, and interactions with other parents and grandparents, Ms Kovack is finding a way to get through each day.
Ms Carolan has helped dozens of Newtown families connect their loved ones with rehab programs, and educated thousands more with outreach activities, speakers, support groups, and an annual Parent University series of intensive workshops.
Housed at Edmond Town Hall for the past couple of years, the Parent Connection is poised to open its brand-new expanded offices in a converted duplex at Fairfield Hills. Ms Carolan said that the new space will afford a much greater opportunity to respond to residents and survivors like the Kovack family, as well as providing a discreet place to research options for those ready to commit to rehab.
“Our support groups are about coming — you don’t have to give your name, you don’t have to share, we just ask that you listen,” she said. “There’s no reason for anybody in that situation to feel alone, to feel any shame, and to know that there is hope.”
Ms Carolan said the scourge of opiates has moved from dank urban shooting galleries to the finished basements and picture-perfect homes of Newtown and virtually every other suburban community in Connecticut. When she heard about the Kovack family’s loss, she reached out and Ms Kovack eventually decided to try the Parent Connection’s bereavement group for overdose survivors.
Having lost her own son to an opiate overdose, Ms Carolan can offer empathy as well as expertise in the midst of the devastation and aftermath of a drug overdose or death. For Ms Kovack, it provided a path to recovery as well as an opportunity to share both regrets and happy memories with other parents who have lost children.
“She just feels so great when she walks out of there,” Ms Carolan observed, “and she’s looking forward to coming back.”
The Parent Connection bereavement group meets the first Wednesday of each month, from 7:30 to 9 pm, and a separate group for families dealing with an active addiction is held every Thursday, from 7 to 9 pm.
For information or referrals, call 203-270-1600. All calls are strictly confidential. Click here to learn more about getting help, to volunteer, or make a donation supporting the cause.