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Grieving Mother Says Ohio's Criminal Justice System Failed Her Daughter

Donna McMullen holds a photo of her daughter, Jessica, who died in September.
Paige Pfleger
Donna McMullen holds a photo of her daughter, Jessica, who died in September.

“That’s my mommy, look!” Three-year old Adalynn McMullen points a little dimpled finger at a collage of photos on a trifold board.

The photos show her mom, Jessica McMullen, over the years – from when she was in diapers to just a few years ago, holding Adalynn on her lap.

Withered flower arrangements line the windowsill, left over from the funeral.

“I can’t sleep at night. I didn’t sleep well before Jessica died and now I don’t sleep at all,” says Donna McMullen, Jessica’s mom. “My mind races, what could I have done? Why is my daughter not here?”

The photos on the board show the highlights of Jessica’s 25 years, but they don’t capture the whole picture.

Jessica was sexually abused as a toddler by Donna’s ex-husband. She started using pills when she was a junior in high school, then heroin. Donna cashed in her retirement fund to get Jessica into rehab in Indiana. Shortly after, Jessica started stealing to feed her addiction.

Court records tell the story from there: multiple charges for theft, drug possession, and eventually solicitation.

“I loved my child,” Donna says. “I would have given my life for her. I would have happily done that. So I’m not at all blinded that all along the way she made choices. But all along the way when she asked for help, she was failed.”

In 2017, Jessica enrolled in CATCH Court, Franklin County’s specialized court program for human trafficking survivors. But her participation didn’t last long – a few months later, she was picked up for soliciting sex on the streets.

Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU
Dead flower arrangements from Jessica's funeral line the windowsill of the McMullen's home.

Jessica’s experience in CATCH is not unique. Of the 350 women enrolled in the docket over the last decade, fewer than 25% make it to graduation.

“They have mental illness. They have drug addiction. They’re homeless. They’re single moms. They have no job skills and they have complex medical needs that all need to be addressed,” says CATCH Court Judge Paul Herbert. “So to get them to the point where they can have a job or be in school, be sober, be in treatment for mental health… I mean, that’s very difficult to do.”

Like many people struggling with addiction in Franklin County, Jessica was stuck in a cycle of detoxing in jail, relapsing on the streets, and getting arrested again.

Over the course of that cycle, Donna grew increasingly frustrated with the system. When Jessica was pregnant, she couldn’t find a hospital that would help her detox. When she was supposed to be transferred from jail to a recovery facility, she escaped from the transport van from the jail parking lot.

When she was rearrested, she told her mom the van’s doors weren’t even locked.

Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU
Adalynn McMullen plays outside. She lives with her grandmother, Donna, after her mom Jessica died.

“I said, ‘You know, if you could put that mind of yours into getting well, what could you accomplish? You have such a mind, and you have so much courage and so much strength.’” Donna says. “Because who in the hell escapes on the jail parking lot? Who does that?”

During her final stay in jail, it seemed like Jessica was finally making strides. She was participating in jail programming, and Donna was working to find a bed for Jessica in a rehabilitation facility.

Suddenly the plan changed.

“She began asking if we would advocate, if I would advocate for an early release,” says Hannah Estabrook, the coordinator of CATCH Court. “And I gave her a list of about four things that I wanted her to consider and accomplish before I would even approach her judge. And she did all those things.”

Jessica connected with a medically assisted treatment program, completed a program for women struggling with addiction, attended group counseling sessions, and found some housing options.

She was approved for release, more than a month early. No one told Donna.

Fewer than 10 days later, Jessica died of an overdose.

Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU
The McMullen family - Donna, right, Donna's daughter, and Donna's sister - sit on the couch between posters they made for Jessica's funeral.

“Her mom has every right to be frustrated. Her daughter is dead,” Estabrook says. “And we can’t know what would happen, if she had finished those last days in jail. But again we felt like there was a path, because jail is not treatment. There are some good programs in the jail, but it is not treatment. She was in an environment where she was surrounded by people who were associated with the lifestyle.”

“What we try to do is separate out the disease from the behavior. And that’s an art, that’s not a science,” Herbert adds. “She’s going to get out. And unfortunately, the disease was hanging over her, and it won.”

That decision has left Donna with so many questions: Aren’t there people associated with the lifestyle on the outside, too? Isn’t she safer in jail? And why does the system give so much decision-making power to people like her daughter, who are driven to get out of jail so that they can use, not change?

It haunts her.

“She’s everywhere and everything,” Donna says, crying. “She’s a song on the radio. She’s a perfume I smell. She’s something that makes me laugh. And I don’t know that I can express it. She was my first-born child and I loved her beyond reason. And just the fact that she’s not here… but she should be. She should still be in jail.”

Even if more time in jail wouldn’t have changed the outcome, Donna says at least it would have given her and Adalynn just a few more moments with Jessica.