Mother charged in 12-year-old daughter's methadone overdose

Jane Griffith told police that she was using methadone because she was a recovering heroin addict. She would travel to a clinic in Seattle six days a week to get her treatment. Because the clinic is closed Sundays, she would receive a dose to take at home.

At home, Griffith told police, she would store the methadone in a “lock box.” That security measure would prove useless, according to documents from the Pierce County Prosecutor's Office. They charge that Griffith shared methadone with her daughter, Jessica, which caused the 12-year-old Lakota Middle School student’s overdose death on Oct. 18.

The medical examiner’s official cause of death: Acute methadone intoxication.

Jane Griffith was arraigned Wednesday at Pierce County Superior Court on a charge of controlled substances homicide. She pleaded not guilty to the charge and is being held on $500,000 bail. Her next hearing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Dec. 22.

Pierce County prosecutors allege Griffith gave her daughter the methadone — a lethal drug for anyone with a low tolerance for opiates — because Jessica had complained about a knee injury. The pair were staying at Griffith’s sister’s home in the 4800 block of Nassau Avenue Northeast in Tacoma. Griffith gave her daughter the methadone on two occasions, according to the documents: On the night of Oct. 17, and again on the morning of Oct. 18.

Jessica Griffith’s aunt and cousin told police, according to the documents, that the girl was awake at 6 a.m. Oct. 18, after her mother had gone to the clinic to pick up her Monday methadone dose. Jessica’s aunt checked on her again at 10:30 a.m., and it appeared she was sleeping.

At noon, the aunt checked on Griffith again, but her lips were blue and she was not breathing. Paramedics and police arrived and tried to revive the girl, but she was pronounced dead at around 12:30 p.m.

Jessica Griffith’s death was ruled accidental by the Pierce County medical examiner. Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Philip Sorensen said that the intent behind a controlled substances homicide charge is that a victim was given illegal drugs and died unintentionally — as opposed to giving a victim drugs and knowing the victim would die.

“It’s not a ‘you-meant-to-kill-them’ kind of crime,” he said.

Sorensen said the crime is a Class B felony, with sentences usually averaging between four and six years. Sorensen said that Jane Griffith had prior felonies for theft and drugs.

After Jessica Griffith died, a memorial was erected at Lakota Middle School, and a mournful Facebook page was created. The Federal Way School District provided grief counseling to affected students, and officials said that effort will continue.

“Our priority, as always, is the health and safety of our students,” said district spokeswoman Diane Turner. “We all grieve the loss of Jessica. As educators, we will continue to focus our energies on helping our students cope with this difficult situation."

Methadone: A powerful drug

Methadone is a powerful drug that has several uses. Doctors can administer it as a pill to relieve pain. It is more notorious as a treatment for opiate addiction, like heroin and prescription drugs, and has served this purpose for almost 40 years.

Ron Jackson, executive director of Evergreen Services, a Seattle methadone clinic, said that the lethality of methadone is a function of tolerance. Someone who has never used an opiate may not survive taking a dose that a longtime heroin user could take.

“Some people think it’s a factor of age or gender or body size. It's really not,” he said. “None of those translate; it has to be individually determined.”

Jim Vollendroff, assistant director for the King County substance abuse division, said that there are 2,283 people in King County receiving methadone treatments, and 1,645 throughout the rest of Washington state.

Methadone is distributed in liquid form. The drug is said to taste bitter and is usually mixed with a drink like lemonade, Jackson said. Methadone users are never allowed to share the drug.

Jackson said that patient deaths caused directly from methadone are rare, if nonexistent. Usually, methadone users die by mixing drugs, he said. He explained that methadone patients can earn privileges where they can be given take-home doses of methadone, rather than having to come in to the clinic every day. Those patients must not use any other drug, and cannot miss a counseling session. They are also given a lock box to secure the medicine.

“As (patients) earn these take-home privileges, they have to go to a class in responsibility,” he said. “They have to secure all the methadone that’s given to take home. We have signs up that say it’s up to you” to secure the drug.

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