Drugs

'I Arrested My Own Daughter For Heroin'

A Georgia mother and police officer speaks in favor of medical amnesty laws, which expand access to overdose reversal medications.

Photo: Lieutenant Tanya Smith with her daughtor, Taylor.

When Lieutenant Tanya Smith strides through the halls of Georgia’s general assembly, all eyes are upon her. When she addresses her audience, partisan squabbling ceases and a rare silence washes over the assembly. Smith advocates for a law enacted last Thursday in Georgia, which aims to reduce deaths from drug overdose by granting immunity from some drug charges to those who experience or seek help for an overdose. After 20 years of enforcing the punitive drug policies she now calls into question, Smith knows a lot about addiction and law. But she also knows as a mother. It is her story that captivates the room—a story of the love and loss of a mother sworn to uphold the law and a daughter determined to break it.

Smith’s nightmare began in 2011 after her daughter, Taylor, graduated high school. Taylor was, in her mother’s words, a free-spirited young woman known for a witty sense of humor and a unique, high-pitched laugh. She loved to learn and tried never to miss a day of school, which was difficult as the severe asthma that had plagued her since childhood made sudden hospital visits a frequency. But that summer, Smith began to notice something strange. Her daughter was wearing long sleeved shirts, even as the air shimmered with heat. She was moody, and her funny laugh no longer echoed through the house.

Tanya didn’t know why her daughter was changing, but she soon found out when Taylor was arrested with a boyfriend in Canton, Georgia, for possession of prescription opioids. The officer asked Taylor to roll up her sleeves and she complied, revealing a network of track marks that raked up her arms. The arresting officer knew Smith and notified her immediately.

“I’d never been so shocked in my life,” said Tanya. “I raised my kids right. I taught them not to use drugs. I used to hear people say that drug use can happen to anyone, but I thought that didn’t apply to me.”

Angry and humiliated, Lt Smith did not bail her daughter out of jail, nor did she visit. She left Taylor incarcerated for three weeks in hopes that the experience would be a wake-up call. Eventually, at the urging of a lawyer who warned that Taylor was “getting a good criminal education in jail,” Smith posted bond and took her daughter home. It was not an easy homecoming and the air between them crackled with resentment. But Taylor was safe and it appeared that she had stopped using drugs. At the moment, that was all that mattered to Tanya.

A few months later, in February 2012, Tanya received a call from her brother who lived down the street urging her to come quickly. Rushing to her brother’s house, she found Taylor collapsed on a couch, turning blue around the lips and not breathing. Tanya felt for a pulse. Nothing. She panicked.

“I ran outside screaming for an ambulance,” she said. “It was the only time in my life I hadn’t remained calm. I’ve seen and done a lot as a law enforcement officer, but when I saw my own daughter there I thought, ‘This is it. I’m saying good-bye.’ I thought she’d had an asthma attack.”

Tanya’s brother dialed 911 and when the ambulance arrived, paramedics quickly injected Taylor with a clear liquid. Within seconds she gasped to life and the color returned to her cheeks. Tanya was so weak with relief, she didn’t even think to ask about the miracle medicine. But on the ride to the hospital, paramedics explained they had given Taylor naloxone, an antidote used to reverse drug overdose from opiates such as heroin or prescription painkillers. Tanya was stunned and furious. She couldn’t believe her daughter had gone back to using drugs.

After spending the night in the hospital, Taylor was sent home and the agony of heroin withdrawl began. For three days neither mother nor daughter slept as Taylor screamed, shook, vomited, and cried out in pain. Her mother held her tightly through long days and nights, trying desperately to comfort her. On the third day, when the worst was over, an exhausted Tanya allowed herself to hope that this time her daughter would stop for good. But Taylor returned to heroin just weeks later.

“I could not fathom how someone could go through [withdrawl] and go back to drugs,” said Tanya. “Taylor kept trying to tell me how much her body craved heroin, how it physically hurt when she didn’t have it, but I didn’t believe her. I thought she just didn’t want to stop. Now I know better.”

That summer the relationship between Taylor and Tanya reached a breaking point. While driving, Taylor was pulled over by police and subjected to a urine test. She provided a sample, but as soon as the officers turned their backs, she ran like hell and hid underground as the department issued a warrant for her arrest. Tanya had no idea where her daughter was until she received a tipoff that Taylor was at a friend’s apartment. Soon after, Smith showed up on the doorstep with a gleaming pair of handcuffs and a set jaw. As she snapped on the cuffs, Taylor pleaded with her mother to stop.

“She screamed at me, ‘Quit being a cop and just be my mom!’” recalls Lt Smith. “But it was so hard for me to separate the two. I held strongly to law enforcement beliefs about drug use and people who use drugs. I didn’t want any child of mine to run from the law.”

The arrest effectively ended their relationship. With her daughter growing ever distant, Tanya desperately searched for answers. She started second guessing her parenting decisions, wondering what went wrong and how to fix it. Because Taylor was not a minor, Tanya couldn’t commit her to a treatment facility. Taylor had already been through a two-month drug rehabilitation program after her overdose, but she’d quickly relapsed. Tanya began to fear that she might lose her youngest child.

Then one day, she did.

On August 29, 2013 Lt Smith was out to lunch when she received a call asking her to report to the police station. She arrived to find her best friend standing alongside the police chief, deputy chief, and an officer assigned to Taylor’s case.

“My friend looked at me and said, ‘Honey, it’s Taylor. She’s gone,’” said Tanya.

Nothing seemed real after that. Tanya babbled about her daughter having an asthma attack; she was going to be fine, just needed some breathing treatment. Her co-workers hurriedly called a doctor for anti-anxiety medication. The news didn’t really sink in until Tanya came home to an empty house and disbelief morphed into fury.

“I started throwing stuff, screaming. How could she do this to me? What the fuck was wrong with the people who let her die?”

Later on, the details of Taylor’s death emerged. At the urging of misinformed friends, Taylor had taken methamphetamine in the hopes that it would help her kick the heroin habit. Instead, a strong dose of the high-stimulation drug led to an asthma attack that proved fatal. Her so-called friends dumped her body in a ditch on the side of the road.

***

The Georgia 911 Medical Amnesty law, which on Thursday became the 15th such law to be enacted in recent years, expands access to the medication, naloxone, that once saved Taylor from death by overdose. It also grants limited immunity from some drug charges to people who experience or witness an overdose – people like Taylor’s “friends,” who may have abandoned her because they were afraid to call for help. Although the law is too late to save her daughter, Smith advocated for it in the hopes that it will help other parents avoid her fate and other young people avoid Taylor’s. She is also working to launch a program in her police department that would train officers on how to recognize opiate overdose and administer naloxone to victims.

“I think that historically law enforcement has taken a reactive approach to drug use,” said Smith. “We’ve enforced ridiculous laws that put nonviolent people in prison for years for personal amounts of drugs. Giving people a chance to call for help and use a medicine that can save them is a positive, pro-active approach to drug use.”

Smith also offers advice to other parents, namely to recognize that “raising kids right” and telling them not to do drugs is not enough to keep them safe. But despite efforts to turn her personal tragedy into second chances for others, most days Taylor’s death still overwhelms.  

 “I watch home videos because I’m scared I’ll forget the sound of her voice,” says Tanya, her usually confident voice now choked with tears. “Sometimes I forget Taylor is gone and I wait for her to come home.”

For parents who endure the burden of unspeakable loss, every day is a struggle for answers, for purpose, and for assurance that their child has not died in vain. For Tanya, and others who honor their children’s memories through acts of kindness to others, that legacy has already been achieved.