Jackson County

‘This girl didn’t have anybody to give her a chance.’ Coast strangers saved her.

Tawnya Lundberg realized while she sat in jail that she had nothing to show for her 28 years on earth. Nothing. Not a car, not a dime, not a family.

And she also knew life was going to get worse unless she stopped smoking crack, snorting cocaine and popping pills.

She never had much of a chance. Between the age of 18 months, when her mother walked out on the family, and 12, when her father left, she discovered drugs and started stealing. She lived in group homes and foster homes when she was not being shuttled between relatives.

At 12, Tawnya found herself in the streets, where she sold drugs, shoplifted, boosted cars and prostituted herself through her teen years. She spent time in juvenile detention and on probation.

But now she was an adult facing serious consequences: up to 60 years in prison on a charge of selling crack cocaine near a church.

Lundberg is one of thousands of addicts caught up yearly in South Mississippi’s criminal justice system. The system is short of beds and mental health professionals.

Even when help is offered, many addicts reject intervention. They show up time and again on the crowded criminal dockets of South Mississippi judges.

But in Tawnya’s case, she will tell you, God intervened.

When she needed them most, individuals took time to listen and care; a bed opened up at Sue’s Home in Ocean Springs, where caring professionals offered counseling and help toward a career. The community – and it took a community – wove a net that caught Tawnya Lundberg before she fell into what she realized could be her next home – a grave.

Three times abandoned

Tawnya said was a toddler when her mother abandoned the family in the Seattle area, where they lived.

She spared no details when she told the Sun Herald how far she had fallen.

Her father loved her and tried to raise her but he also drank. She went to foster care for the first time when she was five years old, and was in and out of foster care, group homes and juvenile detention throughout her childhood in the Seattle area.

She also bounced between relatives and felt, as long as she can remember, like nobody wanted her. She started stealing candy in third grade to sell at school. In the afternoon, she used the money to buy a sandwich and drink at the store next to the one she stole from. “There was never any food in the house,” she said. “ . . . I was a really hungry kid.”

She also smoked some of a relative’s marijuana for the first time when she was 8 years old and, by fourth grade, was pinching small amounts to sell.

Her mother showed up from time to time, which was confusing. She brought a plant to Tawnya’s fifth birthday party. “Who buys a 5-year-old a plant?” Tawnya asked.

At 12, Tawnya came home from school to rooms stripped of furniture and clothes. Her father and his girlfriend were gone.

A teacher took her in, but Tawnya was angry and confused. One night, she refused to come down from the roof, where she was smoking marijuana. Another evening she got stoned and almost burned the kitchen down cooking ramen noodles. The state took custody of her the next morning.

She was in foster care a few months later with a dear woman who wore hot pink hats and leopard pants. She loved on Tawnya, took her to church, taught her to cook collard greens and fried chicken.

Tawnya’s heart melted because for the first time she felt like she had a mom. And then her foster mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and the state took Tawnya out of the home.

She found no real anchor after that.

A pattern developed. Wherever Tawnya happened to be living, her anger simmered and then boiled over. Maybe someone stole her Honey Nut Cheerios or told her to get off the phone or blocked her path or fussed at her for channel surfing. And then she ran away.

On the streets, she started turning tricks when she was 12, at first taking the money and jumping from the car. But she got road rash and then she angered a customer who locked her in his car. She decided sex posed less risk.

She ran away from a group home with a boy and got arrested for trying to steal a car. She could never get off probation because she was always running away.

On the streets, she tried any drug offered. She tried to straighten up and was sent several times to rehab. As a ward of the state, she saw mental-health professionals who prescribed anti-depressants. They saw her as a problem to medicate rather than a teenager who needed someone to listen.

“I turned 16 in jail,” she said. “For my birthday, I got a Snicker’s bar, a ChapStick and a card. What a sweet 16, huh?”

Hitting bottom

She later held jobs and even got a cosmetology license, but setbacks and abusive relationships always led her back to drugs.

In her 20s, she found work as a stripper, traveling from state to state, including Mississippi.

“I always resorted back to what I did best,” she said, “which was selling myself and selling drugs.

“I was smoking crack pretty tough . . . I did what I know how to do, which was sell myself to some guy, buy drugs and get high. My drug addiction got worse and worse and worse. I got up every day to get high.”

And then she got raped one night in Jackson County by a guy on the side of the interstate who had initially given her a ride. He balked at her price for sex. When she got out of the truck, he chased her with a shotgun, firing at her until she got back in.

After he raped her, the man let her go.

She picked up a Bible again after she survived the rape. “Throughout my whole life, not matter the craziness I got into, God kept me safe,” she said.

And then, still staying in Jackson County, she met the ultimate in abusive men. She said she got a taste of what victims of human trafficking feel. Drugs bound her to him.

One night, he beat her up in a hotel bathroom. He made her position herself in a squat and hold it. If she tottered or fell, he hit her. People were coming in and out of the room to buy drugs. She looked around the bathroom at her blood spattered on the walls. She was so high.

She sobered up, spending almost 24 hours in that bathroom.

“I was so broken,” she said. “I was no longer high. I was nothing.” She started praying.

“God,” she prayed, “you’ve got to save me. I can’t live like this anymore.”

She was arrested a week later, in August 2013, on the drug distribution charge.

She found salvation in jail, reading a Bible and sitting through regular visits with two women she called “the Bible study ladies.”

They came faithfully to the jail. Both of the women remain close to Tawnya. One is her counselor and the other, Lee Rushing of Vancleave, her adopted “Granny.”

“She had determined in her mind and heart that she was not going to have this life any more,” Rushing said. “She wanted something better. She studied the Bible while she was in there. She put the word in her heart.”

Courts in the six South Mississippi counties handle a combined 7,000 felony cases a year, their district attorneys say, most of them involving drugs.

“A vast majority of the cases we see have some nexus to drugs, whether it be a burglary because the defendant is looking for items to pawn or sell in order to buy drugs, or a shooting because of a dispute over drugs,” said District Attorney Tony Lawrence, who represents Jackson, George and Greene counties.

His office recently prosecuted the case of a mom who, high on meth, left her baby to die in a hot car.

District Attorney Joel Smith, whose territory includes Harrison, Hancock and Stone counties, said, “Illegal drugs remain as the foundation for most crimes in our community. To stem the tide of drug abuse, it is important that we firmly prosecute those who sell drugs but also make sure that communities and government have resources like rehabilitation centers, drug court programs and workforce opportunities to assist drug users who desire to become productive members of society.”

Yet, as Tawnya was about to find out, community resources are scarce for drug addicts without insurance, even those determined to get better.

Destiny steps in

While she was in jail, a grand jury formally charged Tawnya with conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine rather than the more serious charge for which she was arrested — selling the drugs near a church. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum 20-year sentence.

Tawnya caught a break when she went before Circuit Court Judge Kathy King Jackson in September 2014, after spending a little more than one year in jail. Jackson sentenced her to eight years in prison, as recommended by prosecutors, but credited her with the time she had already spent behind bars and ordered her to serve the rest of her sentence under post-release supervision.

Tawnya would have to report to probation officers, pay fines and court costs, submit to drug tests and follow other rules, or serve her time behind bars.

Destiny Allen, a deputy who at the time worked in transport, drove Tawnya from the jail to the courthouse to get set up her probation. Tawnya wore her jail-issued whites, boxer shorts over thermal underwear.

Tawnya clutched a paper bag that held the evening meal from jail — a peanut butter and syrup sandwich and a bag of Fritos.

“Throw that food away,” Allen said. “You’re going to get better food now. You’re out.”

“Ms. Destiny,” Tawnya said, “I have nowhere to go. I might not have anything to eat later. I’m going to keep this.”

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Destiny Allen calee@sunherald.com Anita Lee

Allen and Christy Green, a case manager for drug court in Jackson County, were not obligated to help Tawnya but they did.

They started making calls, scrambling to find her a bed.

“I think everybody deserves another chance,” Green said. “What they do with it after it’s offered is up to them. This girl didn’t have anybody to give her a chance. She didn’t have anybody to help her. I could not walk away and let that girl sleep on the street that night. I just couldn’t do it.”

State-certified programs that treat drug addicts in Mississippi’s six southernmost counties have only 42 beds, 28 of them for women, directors of those programs say. Tawnya needed a transitional bed — one for recovering addicts who have already gone through withdrawal — and the programs offer even fewer of those.

Beds cost money, too, and addicts are usually broke. They have tested their families to such limits that they are unwilling to get involved.

South Mississippi does have a network of faith-based recovery and transition homes and homeless shelters. Tawnya had been hoping to get into Sue’s Home, a faith-based transition home in Ocean Springs, but another woman released from jail the same day got the last bed.

Green and Allen found Tawnya a bed in a faith-based homeless shelter, where Tawnya stayed for about a month, until a bed opened up at Sue’s Home.

“She just came with such pain, such trauma and not expecting anybody to stick with her long enough to know her,” director and founder Diane Easley said. “And you could just see there was a gem in there waiting to be someone special.

“She’s a survivor. If there’s one thing Tawnya is, she’s a survivor.”

How she survived

At Sue’s Home, Tawnya found people who listened without judgment, including the counselor who has been one of the “Bible study ladies” at the jail.

“I had a lot of stuff to work out,” Tawnya said. “I never had anybody really try to work with me.”

She found binders listing resources, including employers willing to work with the residents, who are recovering drug addicts or women who had been incarcerated. Tawnya found a listing for the Women in Construction program in Biloxi and knew immediately she wanted to enroll. She got training for a job in the construction trades.

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Sue’s Home is a long-term transitional home for women and children. It provides resources for those admitted to be successful in their recovery process. Amanda McCoy amccoy@sunherald.com

She didn’t find work immediately, though. She grew frustrated as an employee at a fast-food chain. And while she was used to living in group environments, there was a little boy at Sue’s Home who wailed constantly, his voice reaching Mariah Carey-level pitches.

One day, she had enough and blew up. She yelled, stormed to her room and slammed the door. Back in the day, Tawnya would have run off. But that’s not what she did. She sat in silence for the rest of the night. She knew that she had screwed up.

“They gave me another chance,” she said. “When you are given another chance, if you are smart, you do the right thing. I tried to do everything I could.”

The women at Sue’s helped her do all the things recovering addicts must do to clean up their lives, like get their driver’s licenses reinstanted. Tawnya found a job in heating and air conditioning and then she found an even better job — with excellent benefits, better pay and room for advancement — working on heavy machinery.

“I fix broken things,” she said, laughing at the coincidence.

Tawnya has been sober since Aug. 27, 2013, the day she was arrested. Five years in recovery have made all the difference. The 32-year-old owns her own home and has a son, Hezekiah, who is about to have his first birthday. She is co-parenting with his father.

In five years, she says, who knows what she will be doing? “A soccer mom, but without the minivan,” she said. Maybe she will have a husband. She hopes that might happen. When you are on drugs, nothing changes because nothing changes.

Tawnya does not struggle with a desire for drugs.

She participates in recovery programs. She calls Granny or her counselor or a friend when she feels like she needs help. She found a church home, Emmanuel Baptist in Ocean Springs. She loves it there and the members love her.

“I still struggle with the stuff that made me do drugs,” she said. “For me, the answer was God.”

“You see all the stuff God’s helped me with. I’ve got to say something about it. No matter what you’ve been through, you can turn it around. You can change your life. It takes a support system. It takes God and it takes the willingness to do it.”

Help for Sue’s Home

Sue’s Home provides transitional housing for women, including those with children, who have finished residential drug treatment programs, have experienced homelessness or have been incarcerated.

The home provides comprehensive services to help women and single mothers recover and rejoin the community, including faith-based counseling, transportation, and access to resources such as 12-step programs, job training and employment opportunities.

Women can live in the home for six months to nine months, then receive short-term assistance with utilities and rent while transitioning to independent living. Sue’s Home charges a sliding-scale fee based on income.

  • The home relies on community support to provide services. You can donate online through the sponsoring nonprofit agency, Community Care Network, or by mailing a check to CCN at 7400 Fountainbleau Road, Ocean Springs, MS, 39564.

  • The home also accepts donations of items needed for its resident families.You can make arrangements to donate by calling 228-215-2662 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday. You can also call the number to volunteer or tour the home.

  • Current needs include: Cleaning supplies; items women might need when they transition to independent living, such as pots, pans and other kitchen supplies, and vehicles.
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Shellie Carter, development director for Sue’s Home, gives a tour of the facility. Sue’s Home is a long-term transitional home for women and children. It provides resources for those admitted to be successful in their recovery process. Amanda McCoy amccoy@sunherald.com