Families advocate for victims of substance abuse to be memorialized, not stigmatized

Published 12:10 am Saturday, July 8, 2023

LAPLACE — United by grief, family members who have lost loved ones to the drug epidemic are making a heartfelt plea to the First Lady of Louisiana.

Their goal is to humanize victims who have long been stigmatized with a permanent memorial wall in the Louisiana State Capitol, bearing the names and faces of their loved ones who have succumbed to addiction and fentanyl poisoning. Their tribute presently exists in the digital realm through two virtual memorial walls containing the names of victims from across the country, including more than 100 individuals from Louisiana. One wall contains framed photos of each victim, a poignant reminder of lives that have tragically been cut short.

Among those listed on the wall are Jessica Scroggins and Kyle Vicknair, two familiar faces from the River Parishes. Both left behind family members who are fighting to keep their memories alive while raising awareness of the danger of fentanyl that lurks on the streets both locally and across the country.

Scroggins’ mother, Elizabeth Bourgeois, has warned that anyone could fall victim to addiction. After becoming opioid dependent for pain relief following a serious car accident, Scroggins spent years advocating for herself and fighting for a sober life amid a system that continuously failed her.

Scroggins was 30 years old when she died from fentanyl poisoning on February 3, 2022. Just shy of one year later, her best friend met the same tragic fate.

Bourgeois became an ambassador for the Drug Epidemic Memorial Wall’s Louisiana Team to prevent other families from experiencing the devastation she faces each day. She and other parents, siblings and friends have written letters to Louisiana First Lady Donna Edwards to open a dialogue about selecting a location for a permanent memorial.

“We loved Jessica beyond imagination. Jessica was kind and compassionate to all life. Children loved her and she enjoyed entertaining them by teaching them about their curiosities. She loved building collectible Lego structures, painting and saving any living thing. She fed a family of wild raccoons at her job, brought home abandoned baby opossums and even a dying moth to care for,” Bourgeois wrote in her letter. “Substance Use Disorder should be treated by healthcare, not the criminal justice system. Jessica deserved healthcare. She would be alive today if she had not been denied continued treatment.”

Jessica Scroggins’ sister, Brittani Scroggins, wrote, “We would like our loved ones to be treated like victims. They were all victims of a broken system. Many suffered from addiction, and due to the ignorance and prejudice associated with this disease, they were unable to access the treatment they needed.”

Bourgeois believes each photo on the memorial wall speaks 1,000 words.

“Looking at these pictures, you just look into their eyes and realize how innocent and unknowing they were about what was about to happen to them,” she said. “They thought they were going to get a little pain relief, a little high, maybe feel a little better about life, and they ended up dying. Their hearts just stopped…Some were drug suicides. Some lost their lives from their first time experimenting. The most common is fentanyl poisoning involving victims who were unaware their drug of choice contained fentanyl. We have 100 pictures on the virtual wall, but that’s nothing compared to the sheer number of families in Louisiana that are going through this.”

The Vicknair family in LaPlace is still reeling from the loss of their only child, Kyle, who succumbed to fentanyl poisoning at 29 years old on November 23, 2020.

Ten years prior to his death, Kyle’s future looked promising. He had recently enrolled at LSU with dreams of becoming a demolition engineer. With a partial scholarship and a 3.8 GPA, he never could have imagined the detour his life would take as a result of a single pill at a college party.

Daniel and Regina Vicknair have joined the Louisiana ambassador team and also keep their son’s memory alive through the Keeping Your Love Eternally Facebook page, which has raised money to support local charities.

“Kyle was supposedly drug-free for five months at the time of demise. Even with his phone blocked, drug dealers still managed to harass him and get through with calls to tempt him. He broke down and thought he was getting another drug, however, unbeknownst to him, the purchase was pure fentanyl, and we found his lifeless body in his bathroom on that horrible night,” Daniel Vicknair wrote in his letter to First Lady Edwards. “The drug dealers are the murderers despite what society may believe. My son did not want to be a person of substance use disorder, however, he made a poor choice in college 10 years prior to his death… My son was a fun-loving, caring individual who helped anyone he could, regardless of race or background. He loved all animals and did what he could to try to save them. He usually went way out of his way to help people. He figured that if he was suffering constantly, no one else should.”

He continued, “Officials stopped these victims from getting opioids. Abrupt discontinuance is an invitation for untimely death. All people matter, regardless of the illness. Free or affordable recovery options are the answer for our state, but that is a campaign for another time.”

Frank Allemond of Breaux Bridge wrote a letter on behalf of his son, Dillon Allemond, who is forever 28 after being poisoned by fentanyl.  Allemond described his son as the kindest and most empathetic person he has ever known.

“We would like our loved ones to be treated like victims,” his letter said. “They were all victims of the Pharmaceutical Industry and many others. Now, they are victims of China, India and the Mexican Cartels. Many were victims of a deadly condition called Substance Use Disorder. We are using the word ‘drugism’ for the judgment toward people with SUD.”

Renee Goulden of Holden said her heart was shattered by the death of her son, Joshua Goulden, who is forever 20 due to fentanyl.

“He loved with everything he had,” she said. “He did not deserve to die. He was just a young man trying desperately to find his way in this broken world.”

Michelle Evans-Miglin of Walker lost her daughter, Kourtney Spillman, and her unborn grandson, Rory Spillman, to fentanyl poisoning. They were 25 years old and 8 months gestational age, both loved beyond imagination.

Spillman was abandoned by Louisiana’s mental healthcare system, leading her to self-medicate for almost a decade.

“After nearly 20 stays in state mental health facilities, she always came out worse than when she went in,” Evans-Miglin said. “Now she and her unborn child are gone, and her two surviving children that are 5 and 7, respectively, are left without their mother.”

While the ambassadors have not yet received a response from the governor’s office, they intend to keep reaching out beyond the current election season. Bourgeois has seen some hopeful trends that indicate change is on the horizon, including drug dealers being charged for second degree murder locally.

The Louisiana portion of the Drug Epidemic Memorial Wall can be accessed at https://main.d3t3bo5sfmdjit.amplifyapp.com/photos/la