Flint, MI – Erik Fowler was always good at fixing things. When his mother, Tracy Fowler, bought a rental home in Mount Morris, Mich. he completely redid the windows and helped with the renovations.

“He was very smart,” she said. “He could fix just about anything…”He was always a daredevil,” she said. “He had a lot of energy.”

In December 2020, one of Fowler’s friends set him up with a job at a junkyard where he could do mechanical work.

Tracy Fowler said Erik Fowler was so excited to be working there that he said he didn’t even have to be paid.

Erik Fowler who struggled with a drug addiction had just gotten out of prison and had been clean for 27 months when he was hired.

On January 8, 2021, Erik Fowler had the day off to take his son, Harley Fowler, who was 15 years old at the time, to a doctor’s appointment. He never showed up to pick up Harley.

Tracy Fowler began to search for answers including calling his job. About two hours later, Erik Fowler’s boss was at her door with a piece of paper from the coroner.

Tracy Fowler walks through her backyard in Davidson, Mich. on Thursday, April 12, 2023. Nearing the tree line in Fowler’s backyard, a small sign reads “Erik’s Tree Farm,” marking a small plot of mulch with a handful of young Christmas Trees. Erik loves Christmas, Tracy said, so in the wake of his passing, she and her family created a Christmas tree farm for him. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

After struggling with addiction for the majority of his life, he died from a drug overdose at age 37.

Tracy Fowler said Erik Fowler was in elementary school when he became addicted to drugs. He had his first overdose when he was about 13 years old. Fowler said since then, she’s constantly had trouble sleeping.

“[We were] just worried that I was going to get the knock on the door,” she said. Tracy Fowler was left with memories of her son and now is raising her grandson, Harley, who is 17 years old.

Erik Fowler is one of thousands who die from opioid overdoses in the United States. According 2019 data from Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Genesee County “ranks third behind Wayne and Macomb County in the number of opioid overdose deaths” with 138 in 2019 which is down from 184 in 2018. The data also also reported that there were 70,630 drug overdose deaths reported in the United States in 2019 and 70. 6 percent of those incidents were from opioid use.

In 2019 , Flint received $1.7 million in settlement money as a result of lawsuits filed against three of the largest pharmaceutical distributors – McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen – as well as Janssen Pharmaceuticals and its parent company, Johnson & Johnson.

Flint City Council approved settlements in 2021. In 2022, agreements were announced with other pharmacy chains like Allergan, Teva, CVS, Walgreens and Walmart and most recently, council members voted to accept the 2022 settlement funds during a March 27, 2023 meeting.

The families

On Thursday nights, parents, spouses and children of people who have been affected by substance use disorder or alcoholism meet at the East Flint Church of the Nazarene. A room full of loss, empowered by community.

The group meeting, known as Families Against Narcotics, starts with everyone saying their name and what brought them to the meeting. Within the first minutes of sharing, there is applause for those saying how long they’ve been sober, and tears shed for those who are new or returning.

“The victims are those that are still being impacted,” group leader Daniel Martinez said. He is also the director of rehabilitation services at the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center.

To the April 6, 2023, meeting, Martinez brought several people from the center, like he normally does, to show them the effects their actions have on family members, he said.

Among those family members is Tracy Fowler, who used to bring her son with her to the meetings.

Tracy Fowler poses for a portrait among the Christmas trees she and her family planted in remembrance of her son Erik Fowler in her backyard in Davidson, Mich. on Thursday, April 12, 2023. Nearing the tree line in Fowler’s backyard, a small sign reads “Erik’s Tree Farm,” marking a small plot of mulch with a handful of young Christmas Trees. Erik loves Christmas, Tracy said, so in the wake of his passing, she and her family created a Christmas tree farm for him. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

Before his death, Eric Fowler was in prison for 26 months, where he was not using drugs. He went to prison after stealing Tracy Fowler and her husband’s truck and television, and they decided to press charges because it wasn’t the first time he’d stolen from them.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to him and he’ll say it too. I’ve got letters and things I never thought I would get back because I didn’t expect him to pass away,” she said.

She picked him up from prison on Dec. 8, 2020. Through the next month, he experienced a lot of anxiety over where he would work. Eventually, he got a job and was playing a larger role in his son’s life.

“At this point in his life, I thought, he’s moving forward. He’s clean. You know, that he’s gonna be okay. And we had, like, some wonderful letters that made amends with my husband and I mean, things were good,” she said. “So it was just such a shock.”

Then, after exactly one month of being out of prison, Erik Fowler died from taking Xanax that was laced with Fentanyl.

Tracy Fowler said she still doesn’t know where Erik Fowler got that pill from, but that she wishes someone would look into it and find the illegal dealer.

“I think anybody that sells the drugs illegally should spend some time in jail, even six months,” she said. “He had that phone for 26 days. Seems to me they could have got some information from it. They didn’t care. They didn’t come tell me. It’s crazy.”

Tracy Fowler reaches out toward a glass frame displaying photos and mementos of her son Erik Fowler in her garage in Davidson, Mich. on Thursday, April 12, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

Tracy Fowler said if she were in charge of the opiate litigation settlement money allocation, she would make sure to implement educational opportunities for drug users to go into trades and get jobs.

“A good share of addicted people could become great at trades where they work more on their own and they work with their hands,” she said. “I think that a lot of the addicts are good at that. I know they are. I mean, I’ve met a ton of them.”

She also said it would be good if transitional or detox facilities had an option for people to stay longer.

“The money would be good to extend people, to be able to stay longer so they don’t get kicked out at 14 days, right when they’re starting to feel a little bit of clarity,” she said.

Opiate settlement money

However, the city of Flint has not yet announced its plan to allocate the funds.

The list of approved opioid remediation uses for the settlement money includes the following:

  • Treat Opioid Use Disorder (OUD)
  • Support people in treatment and recovery
  • Connect people who need help to the help they need
  • Address the needs of criminal jusice-involved persons
  • Address the needs of pregnant or parenting women and their families, including babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome
  • Prevent over-prescribing and ensure appropriate prescribing and dispensing of opioids
  • Prevent misuse of opioids
  • Prevent overdose deaths and other harms
  • Education of first responders
  • Support for leadership, planning, coordination, facilitations, training and technical assistance to abate the opioid epidemic through activities, programs or strategies
  • Training to abate the opioid epidemic
  • Support opioid abatement research

Chief Resilience Officer Lottie Ferguson wrote in an email that the city has received $1.7 million so far from the National Opioid Settlement.

“City administration is currently developing a proposal for allocating those funds, and will submit that proposal to the Flint City Council for its review and approval as soon as it is ready,” she wrote.

Councilwoman Jerri Winfrey-Carter said she thinks the money should go toward addiction treatment and prevention, legal and justice reforms, environmental remediation and economic development.

“The opiate addiction and overdose can have a significant impact on the economy,” she said.

Flint City Council member Jerri Winfrey-Carter speaks during a Flint City Council meeting at Flint City Hall on Monday, March 13, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

Councilwomen Judy Priestley and Ladel Lewis wrote in text messages that so far, the only plans for the funds that they know of is to use it for the Public Health Office.

Councilman Quincy Murphy wrote in a text that he is working on the allocation plan with the mayor, but as of April 5, the only part of that plan he was able to share was allocating $300,000 to the Health Navigation Department.

Kelly Ainsworth, a project director at the Greater Flint Health Coalition, said she’s been working on a mental health and substance abuse task force, which has been around for 20 years. Her role is to support different providers and community organizations that are working with substance use.

She said one gap that Flint has in its treatment services is recovery.

“People think that you go into treatment and you come out and you’re all better, but really the journey begins when treatment is completed and people go back to living their lives,” she said.

This type of post-treatment support includes assistance with employment or education, or just having a community for people to support each other.

She said it’s especially important to support community groups that are working on prevention, treatment, recovery, harm reduction and behavioral health.

“We look to the partners in the community that are doing that work, and really try to find ways to use those dollars to support the work that they’re doing currently,” she said.

The community nonprofit perspective

Tara Moreno, Founder and Director of Serenity House, said her dream for Flint would be to see a block of houses in the city that are specifically for people who are in recovery and need long-term housing.

“The opposite of addiction is connection. When we feel connected to ourselves and to our peers, to our community. That’s when we know wellness and I would love to see that in Flint. I would love to see something stable that’s outside of the treatment centers,” she said.

Serenity House is a community organization that provides holistic options for people recovering from substance use disorder, codependency and trauma.

Tara Moreno, the founder and executive director of Serenity House, poses for a portrait in her office in downtown Flint, Mich. on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

Moreno said one of the most important parts of recovery is rebuilding a life outside of treatment, which is why she thinks it’s important to fund recovery and prevention programs. She said it’s especially important to be a part of childrens’ lives who have adults in their lives that use drugs.

“I’ve talked to kids, too, in the schools and they would just pour their hearts out in class talking about how their mom or their dad or they live with grandma because mom or dad died from an overdose,” she said. “It’s pretty significant, but I would definitely fund recovery supports and prevention.”

Moreno also said she’s worried that city council will vote to give all of the funds to Flint’s Office of Public Health.

“One thing that really concerns me a great deal is that city council is talking about using these dollars to fund just public health,” she said. “It was supposed to be for addiction…for what the opioids have done to our community, to our families, to our people. It should be earmarked specifically for programs that deal with substance use disorder.”

LEFT: Raindrops dot a glass case holding boxes of Narcan outside the Serenity House office in downtown Flint, Mich. on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

RIGHT: Serenity House Founder Tara Moreno’s smudging tools — sage, palo santo and sweetgrass — rest in a dish in her office Serenity in downtown Flint, Mich. on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

Flint’s Acting Communications Director, Caitie O’Neill, declined to arrange an interview for Flint Beat with Flint Public Health Manager Faith Grosbeck.

“The City Administration is very early in the process of developing a proposal for allocating the National Opioids Settlement funds … There are many possible funding approaches that we need to explore, and we do not know how long it will take to develop the proposal,” wrote O’Neill in an email.

Darcele Robinson is the founder of Donations with Love Foundation, which has a program called Safe Medication. Through this program, Robinson said she visits different places like schools to talk about dosages, over-the-counter medicine, prescription drugs and how to be safely take medication without overdosing.

She said through the schools, they’ll sometimes have two programs at the same time, one for educating the students and one for parents.

Robinson said she thinks it’s important that the litigation settlement money goes to places like New Paths, Families Against Narcotics or Flint’s Odyssey Village.

“We need that money where we can help those that need help in recovery,” she said. “It is very important that they utilize that money where we can assist individuals that is struggling.”

Aaron Rubio, the executive director of the United Community Addiction Network (UCAN), said he also thinks the money needs to go toward rehabilitation programs.

“I think this should be allocated strictly for rehabilitation inside of the jail with substance use disorder classes,” he said. “That would be something like our Beyond the Walls initiative, where we’re going in and educating folks inside of incarceration. Like what you’re doing upon departure here and give them relapse prevention.”

UCAN focuses on a clinical community approach, meaning health care officials, law enforcement, treatment facility representatives, the Department of Health and Human Services and judges are all part of the conversation.

He said they also give training to people who are incarcerated hoping they can be successful when they return home.

Rubio also said he is worried the city is going to give the money to the same organizations it has supported in the past.

“What happens with money when they’re given it is we just keep giving it to the same old people to do the same old thing. And so what does that equal? It’s just us getting the same old result,” he said.

Dr. Michael Danic (left) and Aaron Rubio (right) discuss options for patients receiving opiate-related care at a hospital in Genesee County, Mich. on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

“They need to do better due diligence and find out who’s doing what and what’s happening and what’s working, not just go with the flow,” he said.

Rubio said he also doesn’t think that law enforcement should receive any of the settlement money, unless they plan to use it to have a direct impact on the opiate crisis.

“I’m not sure why law enforcement would need any opiate settlement money,” he said. “I know it affects their daily work, but giving them more money to hire more officers or another office or things like that, that I don’t know how effective that would be.”

He said he hopes that nonprofits that are in the community, like his, will get funded with the settlement money.

“It’s frustrating for individuals like myself and nonprofits around the community that were overlooked because of treatment facilities,” he said.

He said that even though most nonprofits in the area are doing good work, sometimes funds are misused.

“A lot of people say they’re fighting this fight and doing things right for grants to get money, and then they get $40,000, $50,000 and they pay themselves and [administration], a couple of coaches, and then they use about $5,000 or $7,000 of that money to actually do something,” he said.

Rubio also has personal experience with substance use disorder. His son, who is now 27, became an opiate addict at age 16. Rubio said he took his son to all of the hospitals in the area and none of them had qualified staff or a dedicated area for addiction treatment.

So, in 2013, he helped to create a mobile crisis unit program through UCAN.

If patients in hospitals that have the mobile crisis unit start to go through withdrawals from opiate use, the crisis unit team comes in and does withdrawal management. Peer coaches, therapists, nurses and social workers are all on the mobile crisis unit team. They also help connect people to community resources once they are discharged from the hospital.

“Getting people on the same page in combating this disease together is really the only way to do it,” he said.

Sophia is Flint Beat's City Hall reporter. She joins the team after previously reporting for the Livingston Daily and the Lansing State Journal, along with some freelance work with The New York Times....

2 replies on “Where should a $1.7 million opiate settlement go? Those impacted, doing the work weigh in”

  1. la mejor manera de usar el dinero debería ser pagarles a los adictos por el derecho de publicar sus historias e intrevistar a tantos como sea posible para ensenarle a los sanos el mal que hacen los medicamentos legales prescritos por el cartel farmaceutico que legalmente envenena y meta destruye perjudica a gente de todas las edades sin importar nada, ellos no descriminan solo quieren obtener multimillonarias ganancias. ahora que la mariguana no es delito porque prohinen sembrarla? eso no les genera ganancia no podrian poner taxas. esa es parte del diner malhabido, que generan las tiendas de cannabis si hay un porcentaje mas alto de ancianos que la consumen legalmente y de ese porcentaje al menos el 50 % de ellos les gusta la jardineria liberen la mariguana como planta medicinal y de horticultura que pueda plantarse en los jardines . y se acabaran muchos problemas de adicciones a los opiacios.

    1. the best way to use the money should be to pay addicts for the right to publish their stories and invite as many as possible to teach healthy people the evil that legal drugs prescribed by the pharmaceutical cartel do that legally poisons and goal destroys harms people of all ages no matter what, They don’t decriminalize just want to make billionaire profits. now that marijuana is not a crime because prohinen plant it? that does not generate profit they could not put taxas. that’s part of the bad money, that cannabis stores generate if there is a higher percentage of elderly people who consume it legally and of that percentage at least 50% of them like gardening free marijuana as a medicinal and horticultural plant that can be planted in gardens.

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