ELWOOD — Three-year-old Ar’Monnie Sparkman has a mischievous side to him, according to his grandmother, Dawn Davis.

The toddler relished a recent trip to Callaway Park, dashing wide-eyed from a swing set to a slide to a seesaw with enthusiasm. Being outside, his grandmother said, is one of his favorite pastimes.

“He’s such a happy little boy. He’s got a lot of his mom’s sense of humor,” Davis said. “He’s just an overall happy child.”

Ar’Monnie’s bright smile belies the difficult circumstances in which his grandmother is raising him.

Davis has taken care of Ar’Monnie since he was 4 months old. In October 2017, Ar’Monnie’s mother, Ashley Sparkman, died of a drug overdose after being found unresponsive in the front passenger seat of a sport utility vehicle near the intersection of First and Morton streets in Anderson.

“The dynamic in my family has changed so much since she’s gone,” Davis said. “Our family just doesn’t seem right.”

In addition to Ar’Monnie, Ashley left behind another son, Brayden, now 12, who lives with Davis’ ex-husband, John Sparkman. In many ways, Sparkman said, Brayden is still shaken by his mother’s death. He still refuses to visit Ashley’s gravesite.

“I’ve tried to take him, but he won’t go there,” Sparkman said. “He’s having a rough time dealing with his mom being dead. He just doesn’t understand.”

Davis was granted guardianship of Ar’Monnie in late 2017. Her situation is becoming increasingly common as the nation’s ongoing opioid epidemic — among other factors — forces more grandparents to take on traditional parental roles. The ranks of grandparents raising their grandchildren have swelled by 7% since 2009, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Sometimes these grandparents are at a stage in their life where they wanted to travel or do other things, and now they’re taking care of kids,” said Annette Craycraft, executive director of East Central Indiana CASA. “It can be stressful for some of them, and it’s hard for them to navigate through some of that.”

Davis said taking care of Ar’Monnie full-time has meant making some difficult choices that have affected her relationships with other family members. In addition to Ar’Monnie, Davis has eight other grandchildren.

“I see his always being happy and always wanting to laugh,” she said. “I enjoy it, and I smile when I see those things come out, but sometimes it’s hard. I’ve had to put all of my other grandchildren kind of on hold, because it’s hard to keep up with that many kids.”

A LONG ROAD TO JUSTICE

Wade Allen Wade, 30, was charged with felony reckless homicide and dealing in narcotic drugs after allegedly “fronting” Ashley an unspecified amount of heroin on Oct. 17, 2017, according to a police informant.

The case against Wade has lingered in the local court system since then, having been formally continued at least six times, with hearings rescheduled on several other occasions.

Approaching the third anniversary of Ashley’s death, Davis expressed frustration with the delays in the proceedings. Among her criticisms, she said, is the disappearance of her daughter’s cellphone, which was taken for forensic evidence and which contains dozens of unduplicated family photos.

She estimates she’s made at least 20 trips to Anderson from her home in Converse, near Marion, for hearings and other matters in the case.

“I feel like I was kicked in the throat … after doing all that and waiting three years for this to get settled,” she said.

Davis added that she’s also upset that a plea bargain is apparently being discussed in the case, arguing that Wade’s status as a habitual offender should preclude any such consideration.

In 2015, Wade was implicated in the theft of weapons and other police gear from an unmarked police sport utility vehicle. In June 2016, he received a 10-year prison sentence on two counts of dealing in cocaine and dealing in a look-alike substance after violating the terms of his probation by failing a drug test.

Madison County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Steve Koester said that, while he’s unable to comment on such matters until the case is adjudicated, findings of fact normally guide those decisions.

“Whether or not a plea agreement is given is usually depending on the facts of the case,” he said. “We are actually probably one of the more aggressive counties in dealing with people that have died of overdoses, for going after the people that gave them the drugs.”

Koester said Wade’s case was originally charged as a reckless homicide. Various issues have cropped up — including a court transfer after Andrew Hopper was elected judge of Circuit Court 3 in 2018. Hopper had previously served as a deputy prosecutor under Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings.

Also, Koester noted, “This case is unique in the extent that (Wade) is in prison now, so he’s not in our jail awaiting trial. Since he’s in prison, on the scale of cases that need to be tried, that gets pushed off a little bit because we know where he’s at.”

Additionally, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has constricted the schedules for all six circuit courts. In normal circumstances, Koester said, as many as four trials could be progressing at the same time, but health and safety protocols are limiting activity to one trial a week. Still, he said that Davis’ frustration is understandable.

“I know the family is suffering and going through a very difficult time,” he said. “This (trial) being dragged out for as long as it has, hasn’t helped. I certainly understand their frustration.”

As Davis and Sparkman await a formal pretrial conference — currently scheduled for Sept. 18 — they maintain that Wade needs to be held accountable for Ashley’s death with additional prison time.

“What I think would be a fair punishment is for his mother to never see him again, and his child never to see him again,” Davis said. “Then maybe they might know what we’re going through.”

“I don’t feel like he’s done enough time,” Sparkman added. “He took the most important thing in my life away. That will never, ever be replaced.”

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