DORSET, Vt. — The midnight phone call woke them all up. As Bonnie Bruce struggled to understand what the police officer was saying, her 11-year-old grandson, Elias, appeared in her bedroom doorway and walked to her bedside, listening. He knew: It was about his mother.
“Wait a minute, what are you telling me?” Bonnie gasped into the phone. The coil of dread lodged hard in her gut for the past 11 years, since her daughter first shot heroin into the soft crook of her elbow, abruptly gave way. “Is she all right?”
Bonnie thought of her daughter Tamara Bruce as two different people. When Tamara was clean, she was “Goose” or “Mara,” the fun-loving mother of three who would bop outside to play pickup basketball with Elias, her oldest, or sprawl on the floor to color with her niece.
But when she was using, she was thin, distant, and deceptive. Bonnie had stopped keeping money in her house for fear that Tamara would steal it.
Lately, that Tamara had come back, picking at her skin and avoiding questions.
Now, hours after vanishing the night after Thanksgiving, Tamara had been found, passed out with her fiance, Jacob Davis, in Lawrence, Mass., more than three hours from home. They had been shooting up with their two little boys, 2-year-old Charles and a 9-month old Knox, in their idling car, the officer explained.
Bonnie hung up, and Elias started to cry. She and her husband rushed out the door to make the same drive Tamara had made a few hours before. When they dropped Elias at their other daughter’s house, they hugged him goodbye in the driveway.
“Whatever you do, Nana, go get my brothers,” the boy pleaded as the fog pressed in. “You and Poppy go get my brothers and bring them back, and I’ll help you take care of them.”
Behind the headlines
Tamara and Jacob’s Nov. 25 arrest made headlines across New England, their glassy-eyed mugshots atop the terrible details: the passerby who thought they were dead, the seat belt wrapped like a tourniquet around Jacob’s arm as he slumped on the steering wheel, Charles curled on Tamara’s lap, Knox sleeping in the back seat.
The story fit the grim emerging genre of the opioid epidemic: addicted caregivers who imperil their young children, their very public failings instantly held up for excoriation on social media. Tamara and Jacob had abruptly been added to a national tableau, fused in the popular imagination with the Ohio couple slowly turning blue in their SUV while a 4-year-old watched from his carseat; the Milwaukee pair revived with Narcan in front of the woman’s 2-year-old son; the woman who overdosed in the toy aisle of a Lawrence dollar store, while her toddler wailed and pulled at her arm.
Much less visible are the lives behind the headlines, especially of those who are trying to help the broken get whole again, and to bring life and hope to the children.
“I was reading the comments on one of the articles, and people were like: ‘They’re losers. Scumbags. Castrate him and sterilize her, take those kids away,’ ” said Tamara’s sister, Megen Niquette, who works as an RN at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.
“They don’t even know that there are people to take care of those kids, and they’re here. And this has been a long struggle for her.”
It started just weeks after Elias was born in October 2005, when Tamara, 21 and struggling with postpartum depression, disappeared with him for four days. When she came back, Bonnie and her husband of 37 years, Ron, took the baby. A short time later, Tamara and her boyfriend went to the emergency room with abscesses on their arms from injecting heroin, and the state’s child welfare agency became involved, according to her family and court documents.
Bonnie and Ron have raised Elias ever since, in the home where they brought up their two daughters. On and off, they have helped care for Tamara’s two other young children, too. Since Tamara was found in Lawrence, they have had custody of all three. The Globe is identifying the children by their middle names to protect their privacy.
In an opioid crisis that shows little sign of subsiding, it’s an increasingly common arrangement. In Vermont, where heroin and fentanyl fatalities have risen sharply in recent years, substance abuse was a factor in about 28 percent of reports to the state’s child welfare agency in 2015. The Bruces are among an estimated 2.6 million grandparents nationally who care for their grandchildren, according to the US Census Bureau. That number has climbed as opioids have ensnared a wide swath of young parents, leaving them sick, incarcerated, or dead.
“The story is all too familiar,” said Brenda Hamlin, a specialist with Vermont Kin as Parents, a group that supports relatives who take custody of a family member’s children.
Almost all of them are grandparents. When the organization formed in 2005, mental health issues were the primary reason custodial grandparents got involved. Now, it’s opioids, she said.
Their stories follow a pattern, Hamlin said.
The addicted parent was caught with drugs; was jailed; asked their mother to watch the kids and then vanished, leaving the child’s room littered with needles. Police get involved, and summon child welfare.
By the time grandparents are called to the rescue, they have often already been pouring money into supporting their child, from rent and groceries to addiction treatment. They must then raise a second generation, often burning through savings and working well into their retirement years.
At 63, Bonnie has beaten cancer and had her left knee replaced three times. She spends many mornings cooking behind the line at Up for Breakfast, a country-style restaurant she owns. When she comes home to her family’s 3-acre property in Dorset, a rural town of 2,000 about two hours south of Burlington, she and her husband change diapers and referee sibling squabbles.
“I do not want to have babies again,” Bonnie admits. “At my age, who in their right mind would?”
The Bruces’ house is warm, centered around an open kitchen, and decorated with portraits of Tamara, Megen, and Bonnie and Ron’s five grandchildren. The whole family usually gets together on Dec. 2, Tamara’s birthday, and puts up a Christmas tree. But this year, Tamara turned 33 in jail, after her parents refused to bail her out when she was arrested in Lawrence.
Through her attorney, Tamara declined to comment for this story. Jacob’s attorney said his client is happy to be receiving treatment for his addiction in jail. Bonnie and Megen recalled Tamara’s long battle with addiction and its impact on their family in a lengthy interview at Bonnie and Ron’s home. Their account was supported by extensive criminal and probate court records.
Some people tell Bonnie she and Ron should have given the young boys up, Bonnie said, let the system take them.
“We could do that. We could have not gone and got them,” she said.
Bonnie paused. Knox had just settled down after a bottle. After a tantrum, Charles was nestled in her arms, his head pressed to her chest.
“But what kind of people would we be, really?” she asked.
During her first stint in rehab after Elias’s birth, Tamara’s letters home were hopeful.
“I can’t wait to get back to work with you, mom, and do some catering jobs. Dad, maybe if you need some help in the afternoon after I get out of the restaurant, maybe I could help you?” she wrote in August 2006. Bonnie still keeps the note in a box in the basement, along with all her daughter’sother promises.
“Meg I can’t wait to come home and go tanning with you . . . I want to hang out with you more. We always have so much fun together.”
In the letters, Tamara seemed eager to repair what she had broken. But her resolve was no match for the drugs. In the first year of Elias’s life, she overdosed twice, according to court records. In January 2008, she was charged with disorderly conduct after flying into a rage in a 7-Eleven. A week later, she was arrested again after a physical fight with Bonnie, Megen, and Megen’s boyfriend Ben, who is now her husband, that ended when she took off in Megen’s car, running over Ben’s foot. She went back to rehab.
Bonnie and Ron couldn’t understand it. Tamara had been an insecure teenager, often fretting to her mother that people didn’t like her. And she didn’t like to talk about her feelings. But mostly, she was a bright, promising girl with her father’s infectious laugh and a fierce devotion to Megen, her older sister by three years.
When she would get tired of Tamara following her around, Megen would announce she was going out by herself and hop in her car.
Tamara would stand in the doorway howling after her — “Megen? You’re not going to take me?” Megen always came right back. They were a tight family.
Tamara started to take pills in her late teens, and she graduated to heroin after Elias’s birth, according to her family. But after the 2008 stint in rehab, sobriety seemed to stick.
She gained back the weight she had lost. She lived with her parents and helped take care of Elias. She got a good job as a parts manager for a car dealership, where she met Jacob. The new couple took Elias and Megen’s son fishing for trout in Emerald Lake and out to the movies.
Her family hoped she would stay healthy, but there were warning signs. Several times, when Bonnie and Tamara were together, people from Tamara’s old life followed her around, trying to get close enough to press drugs into her hand.
“I live one day at a time with her,” Bonnie said. “Heroin is the worst thing in the world.”
‘I don’t want to be like this’
Three years ago, on their last family vacation before everything fell apart again, Bonnie, Tamara, and Megen took Elias and Megen’s son and daughter to Old Orchard Beach in Maine, as they did every summer.
They ate lobster. Megen and Tamara got matching sweat shirts. At the carnival, Megen and Elias went on all the rides and Tamara played all the long-shot games. Megen keeps a picture from that trip, taken just after she and Tamara had won giant stuffed monkeys. They grin widely in their sweat shirts: sisters who have forgiven past mistakes.
But just a few months later, in the fall of 2013, Tamara was pregnant, afraid, and back on drugs, according to her family and court documents. She started stealing checks from her parents, which angered Bonnie and Ron, though they saw it as a cry for help.
They were desperate to get Tamara into treatment. They had already attempted to detox her once, at home, after being unable to find a spot in rehab: Tamara had curled up in her bed, shaking, sweating, and crying from the withdrawal. Bonnie had lain beside her, murmuring encouragement.
“I’m here, we’ll get through this together,” she’d said.
But Tamara had been inconsolable.
“I can’t! I can’t!” she’d cried. “Just do something for me, mom!” After a week, Bonnie had left to go to work. When she got back, she said, Tamara was gone.
Bonnie approached an old friend, Michael Hall, the police chief in Manchester, the next town over. Over the years, Hall said, the small, pretty town where he grew up has changed from a place where people only locked the doors to keep the dog from getting out into one where people install home security cameras. Some of that is just the way the world is now, he said. But some of it is the heroin.
“Bonnie and her family are hard-working, middle-class Americans who earned everything they got. Their kids are good people,” Hall said. “Anybody that thinks they couldn’t find themselves in a similar situation — be thankful.”
Even with Hall’s help, Tamara couldn’t find a bed in a rehab center. Bonnie remembers standing in her kitchen with Tamara when they found out there was no place for her to go.
“I don’t want to be like this, mom!” Tamara screamed, again and again. “Do you think I want to be like this, mom? I don’t want to be like this, mom! But I can’t help it!”
A stolen TV and safe
Charles was born Jan. 30, 2014, his tiny body racked by his mother’s addiction. He would spend the first weeks of his life in a hospital, as tortured as his mother had been during her withdrawal.
About six weeks after the baby was born, Bonnie and Ron’s television and safe disappeared. They had decided not to press charges over the stolen checks, hoping Tamara would get treatment instead. This time, they called the police.
Tamara and Jacob told investigators a long story about a drug dealer and a debt, according to court documents, but in the end Tamara pleaded guilty to grand larceny and a host of forgery and uttering charges. She had cashed nearly $9,000 worth of her parents’ checks.
Charles spent months in the care of the state before Bonnie and Ron took him into their home, sharing custody with their daughter.
Bonnie begged Tamara to get her tubes tied. But Tamara said Jacob wanted a little girl, Bonnie recalled, and by late 2015, she was pregnant again.
Megen knew that if Tamara couldn’t stay healthy, Bonnie would wind up with all three of her children. Someday, the boys would fall to Megen and her husband to care for.
“This constant knowing: Ultimately, we have two kids, but we really have five kids,” she said. “Because it’s sad to say, when my parents are gone, I will be responsible for these children. They will be mine.”
Tamara’s third baby, another boy she named Knox, was born healthy in March. In October, Tamara was granted sole custody of Charles, Bonnie said. Tamara, Jacob, and their two boys were living in a tidy white trailer that Bonnie and Ron bought for them, with dark green shutters and a little yard enclosed by a white picket fence. It was good, for a time.
‘I’ll call in a little bit’
On Nov. 25, Tamara and Jacob spent the day with Bonnie, working at Up for Breakfast. Bonnie was teaching Jacob to cook, and Tamara hostessed. But she kept getting phone calls and text messages from out of state numbers, waitresses told Bonnie.
They left the restaurant together around 2:30 p.m., and went to shop for children’s clothes. But Jacob was so antsy in the store, Bonnie said she told him to wait outside.
Elias had a hockey game early the next morning in Burlington, and Tamara was going to bring the boys to sleep over at Bonnie and Ron’s so they could get an early start. A night of Thanksgiving leftovers and Lifetime TV stretched out ahead of them.
When they left the store, Tamara kissed Bonnie and told her she loved her.
“I’ll call in a little bit,” she said.
But she didn’t.
Instead, Tamara picked up Charles and Knox from their baby sitter, driving by her sister’s house on the same street without stopping. As Bonnie peppered her cellphone with messages, Tamara and Jacob pointed their car toward Lawrence and drove out of town.
Found in an idling car
Around 10:30 p.m., a man passing an AutoZone in Lawrence peered inside the car idling in the parking lot and saw what he thought were two dead people. He went to the police.
Officers found Tamara and Jake passed out, Charles on Tamara’s lap, Knox asleep in the back seat. There was vomit on the passenger-side door, according to the police report. One of the officers tapped on the window, and Tamara and Jacob woke up groggy. Jacob rambled about meeting his brother but soon confessed that he and Tamara had shot heroin, police wrote in a report. He dropped to his knees and begged the officers not to arrest them, to no avail.
As they took Tamara into custody, she told officers that it was a mistake, according to the police report. She couldn’t lose her kids.
A week later, Bonnie was standing in the cracker aisle at the supermarket picking up last-minute groceries for a nearly 300-person Christmas party she was catering that day. Her phone rang. It was Tamara, calling from the rehab where she was waiting for her next court date.
Bonnie handed her credit card to a waitress who was with her and walked out to her car to talk.
“Happy birthday, Mar. But this isn’t a happy day,” Bonnie said, recalling the conversation. “I just want to ask you, what the hell were you thinking? Why in hell did you drive three hours with those children in the car, when we were right here?”
Tamara sobbed into the phone. She couldn’t explain.
Bonnie knew her daughter needed money transferred into accounts at rehab and jail, but she had the Christmas party to put together, an event Tamara and Jacob were supposed to have helped her with. Bonnie was tired. She had been hurt by news reports and suggestions that her daughter had overdosed in Lawrence rather than passed out, and that Charles had been dirty when the police found them. She used to blame herself for Tamara’s drug problem, but not anymore. She had raised her daughters the same. She loved her daughter, fiercely, but Tamara was sick. It had stolen so much of Bonnie’s life.
“I really can’t talk right now,” Bonnie said. “Give me the numbers I’ve got to call to do this. I won’t be able to do it for a while.”
“OK,” Tamara replied.
She said what she always did.
“I love you, Mama. I’m sorry.”