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Jordan’s story: ‘No parent should have to bury their kid’

She died of a fentanyl overdose at the age of 15, one of at least 1,706 Albertans who died of opioid poisoning last year. That works out, on average, to more than four deaths each and every day in 2023, the deadliest year on record for the province.

15-year-old girl's father struggled to get her help, break generational cycle

A photo of a man and a child hugging is pictured.

Kenneth Tomlinson was at his Edmonton construction job last July when he received a call from the Stollery Children's Hospital. It was vague at first, with the person on the other end of the line telling him he needed to come immediately.

"I'm like, 'Well, what's going on? I'm coming. But can you tell me what's going on?' And they're like, 'Look. This is an in-person conversation,'" said Tomlinson, 36.

Tomlinson immediately left work and drove to the hospital as thoughts of his funny, wise, loving, 15-year-old daughter Jordan flooded his mind. He thought of her infectious laugh, her twisted but hilarious sense of humour, the way she could light up any room she walked into.

"You know, anyone who meets her likes her," Tomlinson said. "That kid was the walking definition of loyalty.

"She had your back. Even if she felt you were in the wrong, she still wouldn't let her friends be attacked or talked down to. Just a friend that everyone needed."

Entering the lobby at the hospital, he saw a social worker, a couple of physicians and a police officer. He knew something had happened. His heart sank, and he felt a pit in his stomach.

He was brought upstairs to what someone called the quiet room. The staff laid it out for him. Jordan had been found unconscious and was rushed to hospital.

"The rest is history," Tomlinson said, his voice wavering. "She was admitted on July 7, and she took her last breath July 8 at 11 a.m."

Jordan was one of at least 1,706 Albertans who died of opioid poisoning last year. That works out, on average, to more than four deaths each and every day in 2023, the deadliest year on record for the province.

WATCH | Jordan's story: 'No parent should have to bury their kid':

A Toxic Year – Jordan's story: 'No parent should have to bury their kid'

25 days ago

Duration 6:46

Jordan was 15 years old when she died. Her father struggled to break a generational cycle of addiction and navigate the complex system of youth supports.

'Maybe I just need some help'

Life hadn't been easy for Tomlinson, who was a single father living in Edmonton. His mother was a prostitute who was addicted to drugs, so he had grown up in child welfare. He was bounced around, by his count, to 32 foster homes and 17 group homes. He said he suffered multiple instances of abuse.

Tomlinson said he began to sell drugs when he was 14 and quickly moved up the ranks in the Alberta drug scene.

He ran into trouble with the law and was charged with possession for the purpose of trafficking. Losses began to pile up in Tomlinson's life. He lost a number of close friends to fentanyl and violence, and his mother died in 2020.

Due to the nature of his lifestyle, for the first eight or nine years of Jordan's life, Tomlinson was an absent father, in and out of jail.

But Tomlinson said things began to change when he was offered custody of Jordan, with her mother out of the picture. He decided he wanted to be working full-time by the time he would get her back.

"Jordan was really my motivation, right?" he said.

Tomlinson moved away from his lucrative but illicit lifestyle and took a job in construction. His sole priority was, in his words, to "man up" for Jordan. He admired the person his daughter was growing into — the sort of person who suggested the pair volunteer at a soup kitchen at Christmas, rather than giving gifts.

"You know, I didn't really set the bar high in the early years of her life," he said. "But as she got older, we were both kind of turning our lives around and getting our things together, together, if that makes sense."

But drugs were everywhere, even at Jordan's young age. She told Tomlinson she saw someone doing fentanyl in her school bathroom.

She began using drugs herself, and her struggles began to pile up. She began showing behaviour that Tomlinson didn't know how to parent. He felt unequipped to handle it on his own.

"I had a [messed-up] childhood. I'm doing my best, but maybe I just need some help," he recalled thinking.

Unsure where to turn, Tomlinson sought help from support workers and child welfare officers. He enrolled Jordan into the Protection of Children Abusing Drugs (PChAD) program, which allows parents to get their drug- or alcohol-addicted child admitted to a secure facility for a 10-day detox, with the option to extend for five additional days.

Tomlinson would tell his daughter that his previous high-up position in the drug world wasn't something to admire.

"It wasn't cool," he would say. "I was a loser. I wasn't what you think."

"We talked a lot about it. She knew my stance on drugs," Tomlinson said.

Efforts to curb Jordan's addiction were challenging

The PChAD program is a unique piece of legislation in Alberta that was originally implemented in 2006. It's court ordered and police enforceable.

"It's probably the key piece of legislation that protects youth to get treatment," said Dr. Monty Ghosh, an addictions specialist who practises in both Edmonton and Calgary.

Tomlinson said he tried to help Jordan by turning to the program — nine or 10 times.

But it didn't work. Tomlinson said he felt as though the program might do more harm than good, given the way kids run through it.

"These kids are going from using heavily to attending a detox. So they got sleep, food, they're rested. They come out of there ready to party. And they go back to using the levels that they were doing before," he said.

Similar concerns were raised in 2018 and again in 2021 by Alberta's Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff, who urged the government to update the program. The office's report suggested that the time frame of 10 to 15 days was insufficient in dealing with opioids and the higher risk of overdose they present.

In some cases, the advocate felt the program could be counterproductive. It reviewed a dozen cases of young people who had been placed in protective safe houses through the PChAD program and found half of them "made harmful connections with peers that increased their risk-taking behaviours."

The report went on to say that once youth left the safe houses, programs to help the teens with the next phase of treatment weren't easily accessible.

Graff retired in 2022, and his successor, Terri Pelton, said in an interview a review has since been completed but has yet to be released.

"I'm kind of waiting with bated breath to see what the outcomes of the review are," she said.

Hunter Baril, a spokesperson with the province's ministry of mental health and addiction, wrote in an email to CBC News that the PChAD program is actively being reviewed, and work to improve it is ongoing.

"We have heard from families and young people who say the 10 to 15-day program is too short to achieve the intended purpose of supporting young people to enter and pursue recovery from addiction," Baril wrote.

PChAD issues remain

In the meantime, the issues identified with PChAD in 2018 remain the same, Pelton said — and may even be more significant.

The office has heard of a number of young people living in encampments and moving from shelter to shelter, not having the aftercare support they need after they've left a treatment program.

"It's pretty easy to hook up with old peers who are a negative influence. And so I absolutely agree with parents that it is a significant issue," she said.

Tomlinson said that four days before Jordan died, she had agreed to go a different route — to take methadone, suboxone or sublocade, medicines used to treat opioid addiction.

But Tomlinson said he ran into brick walls trying to find a clinic willing to prescribe any of them to a 15-year-old.

"You know, there's a bad stigma around medicine as it is, and no one wants to be the guy who's allowing this kid to use it, right?" he said.

Ghosh, the addictions specialist, said opioid dependency programs are available to residents of any age, as is the virtual opioid dependency program (VODP).

But regular family doctors and regular clinics don't often have the skill sets to manage substance use disorders, Ghosh said.

"As soon as they see someone who's young, they're like, 'Oh, no. I don't know.' The risk and liability in their minds is probably much more drastic and much more increasing. So they won't prescribe these medications," Ghosh said.

"The lesson we can learn from this situation is we need to train more primary care clinicians on how to prescribe opioid agonist treatments, which is the gold standard treatment for opioid use disorders."

Generational cycles difficult to break

If things don't change soon, Pelton said, the office believes the number of youth dying of opioids will continue to rise. That takes on particular relevance in those situations where generational cycles of addiction come into play.

"If we don't start educating them when they're in very early school years about healthy ways of dealing with your emotions and your mental health struggles, you're just going to see another generation continue on that path," Pelton said.

Tomlinson has since wondered whether he would still be here if he didn't have a good support system at work, and if he didn't have supportive friends and family.

Jordan remains the first thing he thinks of in the morning when he wakes up and the last thing at night.

"Every 10 minutes I catch myself talking to her or just trying to process," he said.

"I don't how else to explain it. It's a daily fight. No parent should have to bury their kid."


Jordan's story is one of four personal stories in this series, A Toxic Year, which explores the growing number of opioid deaths in Alberta. More than four Albertans died per day, on average, in 2023, the deadliest year on record for the province. You can find the other stories here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joel is a reporter/editor with CBC Calgary. In fall 2021, he spent time with CBC's bureau in Lethbridge. He was previously the editor of the Airdrie City View and Rocky View Weekly newspapers. He hails from Swift Current, Sask. Reach him by email at joel.dryden@cbc.ca

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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