Sitting at the dining room table of her Westlake home, Tonya Doucette remembers the effect her son Trey had on people, even as a child. One day, at a local store, a stranger approached them and told Trey, “You’re gonna be famous one day.” An avid skateboarder at an early age, Doucette said her son was bubbly, charismatic and made friends easily.
But after years of complicated family dynamics, Trey lost some of that light. He struggled with addiction, and by the time he was 21, had at least two brushes with death, coming back from an overdose with the help of Naloxone each time.
Then, after another stint in rehab, Trey caught his bearings again, his mother said, and had every intention of staying sober and rebuilding his life. On the morning of Nov. 23, 2020, he was meant to start a new job helping rebuild fences and other structures in the area damaged by two recent major hurricanes. That morning, Doucette found her son’s lifeless body in his bedroom. He had overdosed on fentanyl.
Less than a year after Trey’s death, local governments across the country achieved a major victory in a batch of lawsuits against the producers and distributors of opioid painkillers. Pharmaceutical company Janssen Pharmaceuticals and three major distributors in a settlement agreed to pay $325 million to local governments, to be spent on combating the lethal opioid epidemic that has ravaged places like Calcasieu Parish, where Doucette lives.
Now, more than two years after that settlement was reached and a framework for spending Louisiana’s portion of the funds was created, surviving family members are asking: Where is the money and what’s going to happen with it?
“If it was in my hands, I wouldn’t waste any time,” said Doucette, who founded a nonprofit named after her son with the goal of addressing the opioid crisis locally and is currently working on setting up a “recovery cafe,” where addicts and those in recovery can seek help and community.
“The sooner, the better,” she added. Since the settlement was reached, Calcasieu Parish recorded 151 opioid overdose deaths, according to the parish coroner’s office.
In Louisiana, the funds are distributed by way of an opioid abatement task force, which was set up specifically to administer them and receive annual reports from local government entities on how they are spent. The full amount remains undetermined as lawsuits against other companies continue.
So far, no reports have been filed and it’s unclear whether any of the money has been spent. Last week marked the first meeting of a Calcasieu Parish group set up to make recommendations to the parish government on how the money should be spent.
Calcasieu Parish Assistant Administrator Dane Bolin said he understands the sense of urgency surviving family members feel. But, he said, “if you spend the money too quickly, without the right data, without the right people at the table, then you’re not spending your money wisely.”
The settlement funds represent rare, steady funding sources, in many cases spanning several years. “You’re here to make something lasting change,” Bolin said. “If you just hurry up and spend it, you will not have that sustainability factor.”
Calcasieu Parish received its first tranche of money, $1.1 million, in the spring. “We haven’t had the money that long,” Bolin noted. Now that it has arrived and a local working group has been convened, he said, progress should be speeding up on a spending plan. Recovering addicts and surviving family members will also have a say, he noted, and nonprofits like Doucette’s could qualify for funding.
Setting up a secure payment system to distribute the funds to 64 parishes and the accompanying sheriff’s departments has been no easy feat, said Zach Daniels, deputy director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, which has been charged with administering the task force.
To set up a regular distribution of the funds which, in the case of the first settlement, will be distributed annually over the span of 18 years, parishes had to submit contact and banking information.
“That’s been the rolling process, which was one of the causes for delays,” Daniels said.
The first payment was made in April and since then, according to Daniels and the police jury association, all parishes have received the first two years worth of funds, with the third tranche slated to arrive this year.
The funds are split 80/20 by the parishes and the local sheriff’s offices. While parishes are required to report how they spend the funds every year, sheriffs face no such requirement, which has been a point of criticism. It’s unclear why sheriffs won’t be required to report on their use of the funds. The attorney general’s office, which crafted the rules, did not respond to a request for an interview.
Further unclear is whether sheriffs are required to spend the money in the same way parishes are, with a focus on prevention, intervention and treatment, rather than enforcement, since they don’t have to file reports to the task force.
On the part of the oversight committee, “the interaction with the sheriffs would be very limited,” Daniels said.
Denise Konow is a fellow member, along with Doucette, in the statewide nonprofit Millie Mattered, set up by surviving friends and family members to drive advocacy and education around the risks of opioid use. She said she would support money being spent on enforcement, like drug investigations and seizures.
So far, those efforts have produced lackluster results, the Lafayette mother said. “I’m just not seeing where they’re making a dent in the fentanyl. And it’s here. My daughter died from it.” In September 2021, Konow lost her 24-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, to a fentanyl overdose.
As of now, the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office plans to spend the first rounds of funding on mental health support for inmates at its correctional facilities and the interception of drugs entering those facilities.
Konow said she’d also like to see more of an investment in education, especially around the risks of fentanyl and its ubiquity. “I’d like to see it be part of the curriculum,” she noted. Young people like her daughter aren’t aware enough of the risks posed by counterfeit pills for example, which often contain fentanyl.
Since the settlement agreement was signed, Lafayette Parish has recorded 294 opioid-related overdose deaths, 75% of which involved fentanyl.
For now, the parish is still in the process of designing a process for local entities and organizations to apply for funding from the settlement monies, according to the Lafayette Consolidated Governmnent’s chief administrative officer. “No spending plan as of yet,” LCG spokesperson Tonya Trcalek told The Current/The Advocate via email. “We’re early on in this process.”
In Calcasieu Parish, Doucette hopes that some of the funding could help support the operation of the recovery cafe at some point. The cafe will host events, peer support groups and serve as a safe space for those in recovery to hang out. “To have that fellowship, to have a safe haven, to be able to go to just feel loved,” she said.
Meanwhile, she is working through the trauma of the loss of her son. Soon, she hopes, she will be able to enter his room again for the first time since his death.