Embedded in the Badlands Video Series

At the start of 2018, I began shooting a series of videos in collaboration with reporter Courtenay Harris Bond and editor Hunter Siede about the opioid crisis in Kensington. Over the course of a year, we produced 7 short videos. See below. Warning: some videos contain graphic content.


Episode 1: Point in Time Count

Episode 2: Anna

Episode 3: Tulip Street

Episode 4: Angel

Episode 5: Kensington Avenue

Episode 6: Don

Episode 7: Medication Assisted Recovery Anonymous

Kensington Blues Exhibit at Drexel University

Press Release

My name is Hope Daniels. That’s not really my name.

Anonymous Portrait no. 1, 2018.

Part One.

My name is Hope Daniels. That’s not really my name. I decided to go with that name because I got a new job and I feel like my job won’t want me or basically wouldn’t want to hire me if they knew that I was in recovery.

I used to use heroin. I used to snort it and inject it. And it basically took everything from me and it made me a monster.

What job would want me if I were to be honest and tell them I’m in recovery, uh, from shooting heroin?

I grew up in Upper Darby and I started to use heroin mostly in Kensington. I was using for about five years.

My mom noticed the whole alcohol problem, um, I would go to like bars and stuff when I was like 18, before I was even old enough to get in, 19. And um, it got really bad. I moved in with one of my EX’s and um he would buy me beer, get me into bars and it’s crazy cause I have a whole family full of alcoholics and I didn’t think I was one of them at all but like looking back the signs were all there. It started with like beer and then gin and then I would like only go to work to get a paycheck so I could have money to afford like the beer on the weekends or this or that and it got to the point of me drinking just orange juice and vodka just sitting home doing nothing.

So then I got put into the rehab. I said, ‘Fine, I’ll go.’ And I fell like that just opened the doors to so much more heartache and misery. I try to stay compassionate but a lot of people in there like, were, they still… sometimes they go because they are court mandated to or ‘Do you ever really want to be here?’ or, it’s a hard process. So yeah, there would be certain days where like, ‘Oh, I used to shoot up this and that, I used to 8 ball this and that, be on the street, dododododo’… Like trying to sound cool and stuff but that’s all they’ve ever known. Like, how do you have a normal conversation? Well, that’s how addicts have a normal conversation.

I got involved in a stupid rehab romance. All theses terms… if you’re in addiction you’ll know all of these terms… um but, I got into a rehab romance with this guy, we got out- or I got out and then I waited for him and when he got out we moved into his mom’s house and that’s where I actually tried heroin for the first time. That’s where I tried wet for the first time. That’s where I did some xanies, drinking, this, that, we stole to feed ourselves. It was a mess and by the time my mom came a rescued me, my mom is an angel, she’s, I feel like, throughout all this, she’s the main reason why I’m still here and um she got me outta there. And then I, she wanted me to go to another rehab um, up in the mountains and I agreed. And I was driven and hour and a half or so all the way up to there only to be kicked out, a few- lets say maybe like three weeks in, to be kicked out for fighting. And that was rehab number two. I’ve been to about six, um, been kicked out of two, the last one was in Florida. I thought maybe if I ran away and went far away from the main place where all this bad shit was happening and I couldn’t get set free from this demon of mine, I thought if I ran to Florida, everything would be okay but um… it wasn’t.

I caught a plane home… sorry… and I stayed clean a little while. But it was right back to it. And my mom saved me. She broke down my door. Where I had vomit all over me, my face in the vomit on the floor. And I just, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I just surrendered. And it was hard but I’m so, I’m so grateful for where I’m at today. I really am. Cause I don’t want my mom to have to find me like that ever again. While my son is sleeping in the other room I rush to go do that like? It was a whole process, we moved my back room all the way up to her side of the house and now my room is next to her’s cause she’s so scared and she loves me. I have a lot of guilt that I’m working through but I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna feel like I used to anymore and I don’t wanna to hurt her anymore cause she’s sacrificed so much for me. I don’t want to feel dead anymore.

Anonymous Portrait no. 2, 2018.

Part Two

I don’t wanna like play the whole ‘daddy card,’ like I said I’m still working on that with my therapist. But like a lot of it, we discovered, me and my therapist, is the feeling of feeling unwanted, um not feeling loved, feeling, ugly, but mostly unwanted. My dad left when I was young and like I didn’t have a dad until I was about seven years old. So that void was there. And now I have my step dad who is like- he, he is my real dad. I love him. Um, but it hurts to not feel wanted, especially as a kid. And it’s not my moms fault. Um… but on top of that I was teased a lot, um I was called ugly, um… I was made fun of about my looks. Um… I was, I don’t know if I can say this but, white and black people used to call me ‘nigger nose’ because of my nose… Um… I’ve considered surgery, like… little things that may seem petty to people… You don’t know what we’ve been through. Or how we feel. Or how ugly we feel, you don’t know. So I was bullied a lot um… and I guess thats part of where my trauma started. And uh, I’m happy that I never did do any surgeries or anything because throughout all this I’ve learned that I’m beautiful just the way that I am. And if someone doesn’t like me, that’s okay because someone else will like me, someone else will love me, someone else will think I’m beautiful. But… even though I’ve moved past it, it still hurts. So that’s what I’m trying to work on right now. So that’s the trauma, that’s why I say I think it does go a lot deeper than just drug abuse, there’s something in all of us, some type of void, some, some hole that’s bigger than that other hole, you know.

The drugs and the alcohol made me feel beautiful and it was a lie. It was a lie because it was helping me to cope.

And now I’m clean and I’m starting to be okay with myself because I’m putting the work in with myself. Not just sitting at home twiddling my thumbs waiting for a change. I’m making that change. You know, um, I’ve been out of work two months. After interview, after interview, after interview, after no, after no, after no, I finally got a Yes! And a salary increase and benefits and a full time job and this is just one prime example of you accepting yourself, you loving yourself and you putting that work in to change to be the better person that you know you want to be.

I reached out because I try to stay humble and I try not to forget where I was. You want to remember and look forward to where you’re going but try not to forget where you’ve been because that kinda makes you who you are. And so sometimes I’ll read and I’ll google up on like ‘heroin news’ or uh ‘Kensington news’ to remind myself of where I don’t wanna be because any time I do read on it or if I’m craving and I read on it- it’s strange, like I said, you gotta figure out what works for you. Like, who would wanna read on it and that helps them heal? Well, that’s what helps me. Reading on it, and seeing people that have like, like the skin problems, or teeth falling out, like, I don’t wanna be there ever again, you know, the track marks, the people nodding off on the buses like, damn, I don’t wanna be there. So then my craving, that I was craving for a little bit, it goes away, because yes, for that instant little high, look what you’re gonna have to sacrifice for it. And it’s like, ‘What the heck? No, I don’t want to do that.’ So I’m like you just gotta play the tape through. All these terminologies from the rooms and this and therapy and rehabs, it’s starting to click. And maybe it’s because I’ve heard it over and over and over again but I don’t know, I’m just trying to figure it out and stay aware.

Anonymous Portrait no. 3, 2018.

RIP: Debbie Lynn McConnell

Debbie McConnell stands with her mother Laura Bailey Talbert in front of a wall of family photos at their home in Staunton, VA 2017.

Deborah Lynn McConnell, 38, of Fairfax County, passed away unexpectedly Saturday, August 4, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her body was found at the corner of Willard and Hollins Streets in West Baltimore.

The manner of death is undetermined however the medical examiner reports that Fentanyl was found in Debbie’s system.

Debbie was found on August 4th but her family wasn’t notified of her death for an agonizing 7 days, during which time her mother frantically searched the streets of Baltimore and struggled to get her on the Missing Persons List.

Debbie was born August 12, 1979 in Chester, Pennsylvania, a daughter of Laura Bailey Talbert, William and Christine McConnell.

Although Debbie struggled with drugs throughout most of her teenage and adult life, she was also able to maintain extended periods of clean time. Most recently, from 2013 to 2017, Debbie was living drug free at home with her mother in Staunton, Virginia.

In addition to her parents, family members include daughter Cheyenne McConnell, of Staunton, son, Joshua Biondo of Maine, four sisters, Jamie (Richard) Sullivan of Staunton, Gina McConnell of Pennsylvania, Cara (Evan) Yocano of Pennsylvania and Audria McConnell of Pennsylvania, two brothers, Theodore Manna of Staunton and Tyler Manna of Staunton. Numerous nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles and cousins. She was preceded in death by a sister Megan Lynn Manna.

A cremation will be conducted by Simplicity Crematorium and Funeral Home. The memorial service is scheduled to take place on October 20th, 2018 at 1pm at Friendship Church, 1601 W Beverley St. Staunton, Va. 24401.

Laura Bailey Talbert writes, “We would love it, if everyone wore something “GREEN” 💚💚 that was her favorite color or sport your Philadelphia 🦅Eagles pride. That would be great.
She would love that. She missed her birthday by 9 days 😰. So we will be having a 🎉BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION PARTY🎉 after the Church memorial service.

The following letter was written by Debbie’s mother, Laura Bailey Talbert.

Dear mothers and daughters,

Like always, we think we have taught them all we can to protect themselves from this great big world… And then we find ourselves wondering what went wrong?

My daughter was the kindest person in this world. She was my best friend and co-pilot in life. She began early in life, getting into some legal problems, and it quickly became the drug scene. She was so bad into them, I asked her to tattoo my phone number on her so if she was found they wouldn’t have any problems getting ahold of me. And if she was in jail, I knew she was safe. Three meals daily and clean. She had been to several rehabs to no avail. I was always on pins and needles when the phone rang, knowing that it would be bad news about Debbie. She had been on the avenue for quite some time. I would go walk the streets to find her. Begging for her to come home, making sure she had clothes, shoes…..sometimes I have even given her money to buy what she needed to get her in the car and bring her home.  

You have to understand our relationship:  we were the best of friends but as her mom there was a line in the sand. She knew disrespect was not an option. There came a time she got into some serious trouble and I would not bail her out. I told her that was it‼️ And that was that. She was on her own. I couldn’t just keep living her demons. We had not spoken for three years. Then her sister passed away at 29 and I had to go tell her that face to face 😢 😢 and that started our relationship over again. But Debbie had a different outlook on life & family after that.❤ We visited, talked, and had quality time to figure out what path we were going to take. Things just fell into place 😇 and our relationship got to the point that I trusted her again.

When Debbie was released, (the last time she ever went to jail) 😇 🌹 I think the death of her younger-sister really made her think & she chose her family. I trusted her and let her come home. We have always been close. But the drugs masked the “BEAUTIFUL” (my nickname for her) person she was inside. I’m sure all of you mom’s out there going through this, know exactly what I mean… 🌹 You still see your little girl in her eyes but her appearance was not the girl you knew at all.  

To the daughter’s out there who are still on the avenue, or wherever you are, please know, that no matter what, your mom loves you with all she has ❤.
Or a family member, who has been a mom to you🌹.

We’ll never give up looking for you, even if you think that’s the case 💚.  If you haven’t called home, please do so 🙏😇 because the person on the other end, loves you, needs you and will help you. They just need to know your alive ✨💚 and to hear your voice, will be the best day of their lives 🍀.  Because they pray everyday for that 🙏🙏😇.  And know there is a chance to save their babies. Call your mom please 🙏🙏. You’re both feeling the same way, just on opposite sides: lost 💚 lonely 💚 scared 💚 a hole in your ❤ where each of you belong, and can only be filled by hearing each others voices. Because I know the pain, sleepless nights, uncontrollable emotions that comes with not hearing my (BEAUTIFUL) daughter’s voice ever again 💔😢.

Debbie was clean for years after she was released from jail. Together we got her back on track. Alimentally (she had to do the work herself) but knew she had a family that loved her💚a cheerleader mom💚who at times was pretty tough on her😘, but always had her back💚. There were times she would tell me to back off, she was a grown woman and didn’t need me to be a mom🙄🙄. But I’m fierce as a mom‼️

And Debbie did not always make the best choices, when it came to men & friends😐. If she had a date and I didn’t like the on line dating thing anyway because people are not going to tell you their real story… And when it came to Deb she almost always believed what anyone told her 😱. So I would sneak out take a picture of the car and plates so if I didn’t hear from her, I knew I could track down the person she went on a date with📸

One day she needed my phone, and was scrolling thru my pictures 😱 and discovered the pictures I had taken of the cars😜. At first she was like (MOM REALLY)‼️ I said “YUPPERS”. No one is going to take you away from me‼️ I brought you into this world, and I’m the only one who gets to take you out‼️ We laughed our asses off….. to the point of tears 😄😂😅. She hugged me and said “ONLY YOU WOULD THINK TO DO THAT” 💚💚💚 and maybe that was true 😍💚😇 but I’m sure that all of the moms out there, that have walked the streets of addiction to hell and 🍀 enough to find their daughters, have done something like that. So they knew where to start if their daughters were not home by the next day ✨✨.

Debbie and I were very close, co-pilots, partners in crime, best friends. We could finish each other’s sentences. We were rock stars in the car, singing & being silly. There was not a subject we couldn’t talk about (but had to remind her occasionally) that there are somethings I didn’t need to know as her mom 😱. She didn’t care…. She said we’re both grown women, and you’re the only one I tell everything too 😍.
We went and did everything together.

But she needed her own life also. She didn’t like that she couldn’t have overnight company, a house rule but respectful, and to set the example I never had anyone over, or spent the night. We had some pretty heated argument at times. Mostly because I didn’t like the people she was hanging out with. Because I could see she was being used by these people….. I knew she would be the child that was always going to live at home, because she spent more time of her life in the system & on drugs. She struggled with how to conform to the rules and ways of communicating with the outside world. She said what was on her mind, no matter who she spoke too. It was difficult for her to keep a job, because she would call you out if you were not doing your share of the work, and it always came out like she was being bitchy, because of her tone. And 99% of the time she was just trying to express her opinion, not in a mean or nasty way but in the only way she knew how– blunt & to the point.

In November of 2017. She met a man and moved in with him. She lived just 1 mile from me so we talked and texted everyday. It was like she lived at home but slept there 😂😇. We had coffee together most days. Nothing really changed except her address 😂. She had slipped up a time or 2 but came clean to me about it and we found a doctor to help and went to a meeting. I went with her sometimes when she wanted me to so she knew I was in her corner 💯% of the time. But in March I saw the change in her eyes…. New names popped up?? And communication was only text & she was becoming distant. I went to her house to see her and knew immediately that she getting high again. I called her out about it and she told me it was the Suboxone and Seroquel that she was prescribed that was making her loopy. Her boyfriend was evicting her, she was out of control, in trouble and needed to get help immediately‼️‼️. And she knew it. We talked about it and found a place for her right away. But the day we were to go she had a million excuses to put it off. So I went to her house, packed up the rest of her things, put them in the car and said “LETS GO.” She said she wasn’t going, she was a grown woman & I couldn’t make her go‼️ I said I trump that because I’m the mom‼ and could care less how old she was‼

She needed cigarettes, but I refused to move my car so she could not get her car out. I said fine get in the car I will take you to get cigarettes and bring you home. If you want to throw away all your hard work over the years that gave you your family & life back, so be it. But I’m not going to watch you go down that road. She was withdrawing and a bitch on wheels because at that point so was I‼️‼️ I couldn’t & wouldn’t let her fall down that rabbit hole again. So she got in the car. We went to the store. And I just started to head for the rehab she was going to. To say that she was not happy was an understatement. She was pissed I tricked her 😡. But she would have to get over it. We arrived. I unpacked the car and told her she either goes in and gets with the program or she could sit outside. Either way I was going home without her. She got up, and asked me to go in with her 😇💚. She knew she needed help and I was so proud of her. And told her that she did so well and looked as “BEAUTIFUL” as ever. She even extended it for 2 extra weeks. She liked the area she was at because there were people her age, more things to do. She came home to get her car and her things that were here. She found a place to live, worked a crappy job to pay her rent, but continued to look for something better 💚🎉. She had been living in Northern Virginia for 3 months by now and was very proud 💚she was clean 💚 living on her own 💚 making her own money 💚.  And I was very proud of her for really giving it her all 💚❤.

I became very ill in July and it was a touch and go situation but I pulled through it and told Debbie she had nothing to worry about. She needed to work. That I was good to go. Then a week later I was back in the hospital 😱. Wild horses couldn’t keep her away this time. She came to the hospital to see for herself, that I was TRUELY going to be ok ❤❤. She had to get back to work though but came home on July 31st because she had a court date on the 1st of August. It was nice having her home for a few days. I was still not 100% well so she was in nursing mode 😱 making me crazy. I couldn’t move at all without her following me, making sure I wasn’t doing anything 😂😇💚.

Debbie left to go home on the 3rd…. With plans to be back for her birthday on the 12th. I gave her kisses and hugs and for her to let me know she made it home safe. She sent me a text around 8pm.  She made it home ok………💔 that would be the last time I would ever hear from her‼️‼️

I text her the next day & she didn’t answer?  I thought she was sleeping in. She mentioned something about Baltimore before she left my house to go home but didn’t elaborate so I didn’t know if she went out or not at this point. I called and texted her all day & nothing. Not like her at all, we communicated 10x’s a day or more. I was concerned that I didn’t hear from her at all on Saturday. Sunday I was calling and texting 😱 still nothing. I was in panic mode, something was wrong I could feel it.  Every Mom has that built in mechanism that you feel it when your child is in trouble‼️ I called her roommate and she said she was concerned also because she had been trying to get ahold of her also. She last heard from her was at 3am on Sunday and Debbie was in Baltimore then.

Clearly Debbie had not returned any messages, her phone went right to voicemail. She would never leave without her make-up if she was not coming home‼️ I called the police to do a safety check on her, however, they did nothing. She was old enough to go where she wanted, did not have to tell anyone, so the Fairfax police would do nothing. I called for a second safety check, this time her roommate was there. She told them the last time she communicated Debbie, she reiterated what I had been explaining to them that Debbie wouldn’t leave for 3 days without taking some things with her. Her car, clothes, make-up, toothbrush…. everything was at her house but her‼️‼️

So at the 2nd check the police said they could not search the car without a warrant (REALLY‼️). She is missing, 2 calls to check on her, and they needed a search warrant even though I gave them permission‼️‼️ So while the police were there, Debbie’s roommate searched the car and her ID wallet and a receipt from McDonald’s was found inside‼️‼️ So clearly she was a missing person‼️

FOR ALL OF THE MOMS OUT THERE THAT KNOW WHAT THAT SICK FEELING IS TELLING YOU, THAT YOU KNOW THE OUTCOME BUT WILL NEVER STOP LOOKING, BECAUSE YOU NEED TO SEE IT TO BELIEVE IT‼️ Three of my sisters all turned into private detectives, and were relentless in calling everyplace in Baltimore to see if she was hurt or….anyplace they could think of.

We tried like hell to get her on the missing persons list. Fairfax wouldn’t do it because they suck and are lazy. They said it had to come from where I live because I was making the report. At this point I was going to call the national guards if that’s what it took to make someone get off their ass and listen to the facts. Her sister had had enough of the BS and come hell or high water was getting her on the Missing list. And she did‼️‼I have no idea how she worked that miracle but she was an angel with powers that be. So we know Debbie was in Baltimore and still missing. Me, Debbie’s sister and brother walked the streets in search of anything we could find out. To no avail. No one there wants to talk. But we were not deterred. We kept asking. And we found the woman that found Debbie. So when the police showed up at my house, we at least knew where she was at. AND WOULD HAVE KNOWN SOONER IF DETECTIVE MASON HAD GOT OFF HIS ASS and went to Baltimore to identify her the first time 😡 the coroner called him. She did a tremendous job & research. She found my news cast and Debbie’s picture in the Kensington Blues book. She called detective mason again and told him she had my baby and he had to come identify her.  But he blew her off again so she made a call…. and poof. There he was. Identified her and washed his hands of it.

I could go on and on…

Moms alway be there for your daughter. Keep the lines of communications open, that’s so important 🙏.

And go & get her out of the hell hole even if you just don’t know what to do to get out. But you need to be the one to find her and be patient, it’s a struggle. Please don’t give up.

We had a great relationship before she was taken from me 🙏💚‼️😇❤.

For the moms out there your daughter is looking for you to find her, love her and help her get through issues. I feel 🍀💚 to have had years of clean time to really know her as a person 💚.

I love you my “BEAUTIFUL” baby.


Laura Bailey Talbert

Your Story: Family Matters

My half brother and I share the same father and are 18 years apart. I looked up to him all my childhood and for a little while wanted to be in the army just like him. My brother served in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He met his wife in the military and once they came back home  they got married, had a child and settled in Kentucky.

My brother kept serving until he was medically discharged with a back injury. Up until then my brother looked like he had made it. However, with a mix of the back injury and undiagnosed PTSD, he started to abuse opioids and pain meds. It had become so severe that after only a couple years, he and his wife divorced, he lost custody of his daughter and was living with opioid abusers like himself.

I remember vividly in the summer of 2015 when I was 16 years old my parents fighting in the kitchen because my mom didn’t want my dad to fly to Kentucky and bring my half brother home, thinking he’d have a negative impact on me. On that August day I thought my family had just fallen apart. The fight they had was so bad. My dad was planning on moving out and I thought my brother was going to die. I cried in the shower because I didn’t want my parents to know how sad and nervous I was. Fortunately, my parents did not get divorced but I still can’t believe how my father forgave my mother after saying all the mean and nasty things about my brother. My father and older sister flew to Kentucky and brought my brother home.

I have never had a deep conversation about how I felt about my brother’s addiction. The truth is I didn’t want to talk about it and my brother didn’t want to talk about his problems either. I’ve never had real closure because I haven’t been able to express how I felt and why. I come from an upper-middle class ex-military family living in the suburbs so I thought that if I talked about my brother’s addiction people wouldn’t care because people would think I was just trying to complain about something. Everyone has problems. I have a friend whose dad left him, I have a friend who doesn’t know his real father and I have a friend who doesn’t have a steady home to go to right now. They don’t really talk about their problems so why should I? Why should I be the one who gets special treatment and attention? I only told a couple friends about it but I never went into detail. I just wanted to let them know whats up but I wanted to be a man about it and fight the feeling. I especially didn’t want to talk to my parents about it because I didn’t want them to worry about me more and I didn’t want them to make special arrangements with shrinks or tell my teachers or friends or whatever. So for the most part I buried my feelings but if I could have an honest conversation about it I would say this…

My brother’s addiction confused me. He was my childhood hero and I used to want to grow up like him in a way. But after what happened I was confused about how I felt about him. I was mad about him for making our family almost tear apart. I mean how selfish could he be for not thinking how it would affect other people in his life? But I was also mad at myself and my parents for not helping him enough sooner before he hit rock bottom. He was so far away from home at that time. I wanted to help him but I couldn’t do anything for him. If he was an addict back when he lived at home with me I think I could’ve done or said something sooner to stop him from throwing everything away. But I never saw him when he was on drugs because he lived in Kentucky and I lived up in New England.

It’s the worst feeling when you know someone you love is hurting so bad on the inside and is hurting themselves because of it, but you can’t do anything to help. You just get updates with bad news. All I could do was pray, asking for my brother to be saved so he wouldn’t die so far away from home. So that’s what I did.

Flash forward to now, it’s been three years and my family is stable again. My brother is self-reliant, has a steady job and a serious girlfriend. He’s able to see his daughter for months at a time out of the year. It’s as if his addiction never happened which confuses me a little but I’m very happy for him. I have seen the opioid crisis take shape and complete full circle from relapse to recovery. I haven’t told many people about my story because I don’t want them to talk about me and my family’s problems when I’m not around. But if I had just two words to describe that summer it would be this— Family Matters.

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