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Addiction & Michiana’s Youngest Victims part 1

Christine Karsten digs into the devastating effects of Michiana's epidemic of addiction.
Published: Nov. 2, 2021 at 6:23 PM EDT
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(WNDU) - It’s a story that broke hearts across Michiana.

Everyone clinging to hope that one little girl, 11-month-old Mercedes Lain, would be found alive. Unfortunately, we now know that wasn’t going to happen.

This all started when the parents of Mercedes, Tiffany Coburn and Kenneth Lain left their daughter in the hands of Justin Miller so they could have a break.

When Mercedes wasn’t returned home, they called police and the search was on. Days later, the child’s body was found in Starke County.

16 News Now’s Christine Karsten got the opportunity to sit down with Mercedes’ grandmother to better understand where things went wrong.

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Tiffany Coburn was born and raised in Hamlet, Indiana. Tiffany went to Oregon-Davis, and seemed to really like it.

“She was really good in school,” says Tiffany’s mother Angela Owens. “As a child she was energetic, fun, loving. She never wanted to do anything but read and write.”

Owens says as a kid, Tiffany wouldn’t even take a Tylenol. But about 6 or 7 years ago, that changed.

Angela says methamphetamine was Tiffany’s drug of choice, and you could always tell when she was using.

“She would distance herself when she is using. She doesn’t call that much. She doesn’t check in,” Owens says. “She is a totally different person when she is using.”

Sgt. Neil Graber supervises the drug unit at the South Bend Police Department, and works closely with surrounding agencies on drug investigations. Excluding marijuana, he says we are seeing three main drugs in Michiana: fentanyl, heroin and a whole lot of meth.

“We get a lot of thru traffic because of the interstate that goes through us. We are halfway between Detroit, Chicago and Indianapolis,” Graber says. “It is not uncommon for use to see plates from Warsaw or as far as Kokomo coming here to get drugs.”

But where is it all coming from? Sgt. Graber says they are seeing a lot of meth coming across the border down south, and it’s being brought up here to South Bend.

“A lot of it has changed because of laws as they have changed as far as making it more difficult for people to get the drugs, to get the Sudafed to be able to make the product,” says Graber. “So you can’t just go buy 10 boxes of Sudafed.”

Tiffany’s family describes her struggle with sobriety as a roller coaster ride -- affecting everyone, including her four kids.

The oldest is 11 years old. Then, there’s her 3-year-old, who Angela says was born addicted to meth and is struggling with health and development issues.

“Probably about 2 years old she had this thing called shutter syndrome from the meth abuse,” says Owens. “It is like, I would describe it as a seizure because she just shook real hard and would zone out and come back.”

Angela says her 2-year-old doesn’t even know her mom, but 11-month-old Mercedes lived with her in an Economy Inn in Plymouth -- a small space described by her family as an extreme hoarder situation.

While they say Mercedes was always fed, read to and was allowed to wash her favorite show, ‘Trolls,’ they say she was always dirty, smelly and seemed to cry a lot. This lead them to believe she was having withdrawals from exposure to meth.

“Tiffany was so messed up when she came missing that Tiffany didn’t even tell me that they called to make a missing child report on her,” says Owens. “Because she was so high, she was afraid to call me.”

Ultimately, this way of life would lead to the death of a beautiful little girl.

“To have FBI roll up in your yard and tell you they found your granddaughter deceased is heartbreaking.”

Today, Angela wants justice for Mercedes, and she wants more people to understand the effects of substance abuse -- more specifically, meth. She wants more resources in our community, and wants more people to know about the resources that are out there right now. But what she wants most of all, is for Tiffany to finally get clean.

“I guess I do blame her, but I love her, and she knows how I feel. I have told her, if this isn’t rock bottom for you this is rock bottom for us. This is rock bottom for us. This is as bad as it could get. And if you can’t see that then I am sorry, but I have three other children that we have to worry about,” says Owens.

So, what’s next for Tiffany’s three other kids? Well, Angela has already adopted her three-year-old and is looking into adopting the 11-year-old. The 2-year-old is being cared for by family.

Now, a lot of questions remain when it comes to addiction. One of them: How can a parent choose drugs over their kids?

In Part 2 of Addiction and Michiana’s Youngest Victims, we talk to two recovering addicts -- one a mom, the other a former meth dealer -- to get answers to questions like that, and to really understand when addiction no longer becomes a choice.

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