Jennifer Trattner plays with her son, Asher, 2, at their home in Hancock County. Asher accidently ingested cocaine allegedly left near his crib by his father. Staff photo by Tom Russo
Jennifer Trattner plays with her son, Asher, 2, at their home in Hancock County. Asher accidently ingested cocaine allegedly left near his crib by his father. Staff photo by Tom Russo
HANCOCK COUNTY — Asher loves cars, trucks and trains — typical for most 2-year-old boys.

Over the past several months, he’s learned to walk and has become more talkative, says his mother, Jennifer Trattner. Asher’s infectious smile has also come back — a grin she thinks about fondly.

“He’s been pretty amazing,” she said. “He’s come a long, long way.”

Asher’s growth from infant to toddler has been an uphill battle, Trattner said, a fight he didn’t deserve.

In July 2017, Asher ingested cocaine allegedly left in Trattner’s Hancock County home by the boy’s father, Kevin Bunch. The next day, Asher, who was 7 months old at the time, was rushed to a hospital with a 101-degree fever and fits of vomiting. Bunch, who’s set to be sentenced in May for a felony charge of child neglect, told police he used a dinner plate and a dollar bill to snort drugs near Asher’s crib, but not while the baby was present.

A voice for children

Over the past two years, Trattner, who has full custody of Asher, has battled in Hancock County courts to limit Bunch’s visitation time with Asher. Trattner said despite Bunch’s history, the courts have allowed Bunch to visit Asher in a supervised setting.

Those decisions spurred Trattner into action.

“Somebody else did the crime, I’m doing the time, per se, while (Bunch) goes on living his life… doing whatever, and I’m picking up the pieces,” she told the Daily Reporter.

Trattner reached out to state Sens. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, and Mike Crider, R-Greenfield, urging them to write a bill that could create a “safety net” for children whose parents are addicted to drugs. She said judges sometimes don’t put the rights of children over the rights of adults accused of crimes.

“The offenders have more of a voice than the children do, and I have a problem with that. We have children dying and children overdosing and children being neglected,” Trattner said.

The Indiana Department of Child Services came under fire a few years ago for its mishandling of cases because of severe staffing issues. The Indiana General Assembly is working to increase funding to the embattled department to hire additional case workers. Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteers use their voice in court for abused and neglected children, but the agency has limited volunteers to handle the hundreds of cases per year in Hancock County. The caseload has been increasing mostly because of the drug crisis.

Senate Bill 323, which unanimously passed the Senate last month and will soon have a hearing in a House committee, gives judges the option to order a parent to pay for drug testing as a condition of exercising parental visitation rights if the court finds that the parent has a history of drug use within the past five years or if there is a “reasonable likelihood” that the parent is using drugs at that time.

The bill also states visitation time, if granted by a judge, must be supervised if the parent has been convicted of child molesting or child exploitation within the past five years.

Crider said after talking with Trattner, he met with lawyers from the Indiana Legislative Services Agency to see how the legislature could allow judges to apply an extra level of protection for kids and families.

“That’s one of those things that you think, wow, if there’s something we can do to make sure this doesn’t happen, it’s definitely worth pursuing,” said Crider, who expects the House to support the bill.

If a parent is addicted and has to get drug-screened as a condition of visitation, Crider said, it might be an incentive to seek treatment if he or she wants to continue to see their child.

‘I had to fight’

Trattner said the past two years have been “horrendous.”

“I honestly could never say I knew what it felt like to not want to go on before, but there were times I felt that way, but I knew I had to fight for my son and my family,” she said. “I’ve felt hopeless. I’ve felt like I couldn’t fight anymore at times, and then there would be other days where I felt like I could take on the world.”

Those helpless times began when Trattner had to rush her son to Peyton Manning Children's Hospital in Indianapolis on Aug. 1, 2017, the day after Bunch had been watching Asher in Trattner’s home. There, specialists determined Asher had cocaine in his system, a memory Trattner said she’ll never forget.

“Watching my son lie in a bed for four days and almost die — it was horrible,” she said.

Before the incident, Asher was meeting his milestones as an infant, his pediatrician testified in court.

“He was just this smiley little boy,” Trattner said.

Asher has since exhibited sensory issues and meets with several therapists to work on his development. He couldn’t crawl until he was 18 months old, and he learned to walk at 22 months, later than most children, Trattner said. But through the constant “meltdowns” and struggles, Asher has persisted.

He loves exploring, going outside and has become quite a talkative child, Trattner said.

Throughout the court battles and hardships, Trattner said her Christian faith and passion to speak up for neglected children have helped her find a deeper purpose.

“I never wanted this to happen to Asher, and I wish it would’ve never happened to Asher, but in a way, I feel like God has led me to do something positive with this,” she said. “I feel like he’s using me to help others with the situation I’ve been given.”

Advocating for children

Trattner earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Indiana Wesleyan University shortly after Asher became sick. She’s now going back to school to get certified in addictions counseling.

Although Trattner said she’s lost some faith in the criminal justice system, that won’t stop her from finding ways to fix it. She wants to help addicts and the children affected from the disease. And she knows she’s not alone in the fight: Her other two children — whose father isn’t Bunch — Kylee, 18, and Reed, 12, have been there to support their mother. So has Trattner’s best friend, Emily Ellis-Smith.

“This could hit anybody’s home,” Trattner said. “I would’ve never thought in my wildest dreams it would’ve hit my home because I don’t do drugs. My kids don’t do drugs. But people can hide things really well, and you just never know if someone around you can do something like that.”

Ellis-Smith said the ongoing challenges in Trattner’s life hasn’t stopped her from advocating.

“She definitely has that drive. I’m proud of her,” Ellis-Smith said. “I would never want to her to ever go through that again, but I’m proud of everything she’s ever done and how hard she’s fought.”

Trattner’s passion for children’s rights won’t end with Senate Bill 323, she said. She intends to stay involved with lawmakers and push for stricter penalties against people convicted of child neglect. Maybe one day she’ll work as a lobbyist at the Statehouse, Trattner said, or maybe she’ll run for Senate herself.

“I can’t just sit here and not do something and not help,” she said. “I want to be a part of fixing it instead of being a part of the problem and not be part of making a change. I want to put my footprint in the sand and make a change.”

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