T.J. doesn’t sugarcoat the reason why he now carries his brother’s ashes around on a chain around his neck. He wants his kids to understand what killed their uncle — the same disease that gripped his mother, upended his own life, & turned his ex into a missing person. Children like his oldest daughter 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. She doesn’t realize that she represents the next front in the battle against the overdose epidemic, and is a living experiment in how we care for children who are genetically predisposed to addiction, and for the adults in recovery who raise them, like T.J.
T.J. Ashbaugh, 26, fastens the hair of his stepdaughter Emily, 3, as he puts her to bed at their home in North Vandergrift, Pa. Above on the top bunk, his eight-year-old daughter Keeley talks to them as she waits her turn. Keeley has settled into a life of more structure after the unpredictability that came with both of her birth parents’ heroin use. While her father’s recovery means he is staying home and taking care of four little girls, two cats, a dog, and a rent-to-own home, Keeley has only seen her birth mother several times since Christmas 2015.
Keeley pulls her three-year-old stepsister Emily from their father’s bedroom window. “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.
Kate Ashbaugh holds her daughter Addyson as she looks toward her daughter Emily, 3, and husband, T.J., in their front doorway. The couple met while working at Golden Corral in early 2014, at a time when T.J.’s recovery from active addiction was still fragile. Kate receives tips from T.J.’s mother, Danielle, on what behaviors to look for to determine if he may be relapsing. As a person who became dependent on prescription opioids herself, Danielle says she understands how the addicted mind works.
Three-year-old Emily plays on a tablet at the feet of her stepfather, T.J., as they wait for Emily’s stepsister Keeley to come home from school. T.J. 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. His wife works four 10-hour days a week, with T.J. in charge of the aging house full of their blended family and pets.
T.J. picks up his daughter from his mother’s house in North Versailles, Pa. He drops her off there on Thursdays when he goes into Pittsburgh to visit his doctor as a part of his medication-assisted addiction treatment program.
T.J.’s mother Danielle McClain keeps the ashes of her late son, Ricky, in a lit glass cabinet with his last pack of Newport cigarettes, photos of him and his sons, and his always meticulously clean Air Force 1 sneakers. Danielle found Ricky face down in his basement bedroom at her home on Halloween morning of 2017, dead from complications of fentanyl and cocaine intoxication.
“When he got out of jail, I knew he was dabbling,” in drugs, says T.J. of his older brother, Ricky, whose ashes now sit in a glass case in his mother’s living room. “He said, ‘Mom’s being a bitch.’ I said, ‘Yeah, she doesn’t want to come down and find you dead.'” Danielle McClain, far right, 46, flicks the ear of her son, Nick Ashbaugh, 22, as her other son, T.J., picks up his daughter from their house after his weekly trek to addiction treatment. On the floor, McClain’s daughter, Grace Wright, 11, holds her niece Addyson, 1. Behind T.J.: the ashes of McClain’s oldest son, Ricky.
“We will have money” reads the red ink beside the appointment reminders and love notes written on the Ashbaugh family calendar. That’s where Kate stays on top of the due dates for her husband’s drug related court fines.
Keeley uses a torn heart sticker to make a mustache. A missing persons report was filed for Keeley’s mother, Delores, who has been in and out of jail and has only seen Keeley a few times since Christmas 2015. That may be for the better, says her father, T.J. “The memories she’s got are good memories.”
Eight-year-old Keeley, left, plays with her stepsisters Hailey, center, 5, and Emily, 3, as they try to squeeze into a toy house together. Keeley is now back in custody of her father after living with her grandmother while her birthparents served time. After years in a heroin house, Keeley “wasn’t used to the structure,” says Keeley’s grandmother, Danielle McClain. “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.”
T.J. stands in the doorway of the bathroom as his wife Kate helps his stepdaughter Emily, 3, brush her teeth.
Each night at bedtime, T.J. and his daughters and stepdaughters repeat the same refrain to each other, “Goodnight, peace out, deuces, love you, sweet dreams.” T.J., 26, leans over his stepdaughter Emily, 3, as she kisses a necklace holding the ashes of T.J.’s late brother, Ricky, as a part of her bedtime routine. —– To see and read more of this story, head to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette here . To share your own story with the overdose crisis, and to see more stories from our neighbors, head to our Needle in the Family Tree series.