No one grows up saying ‘Man I can’t wait to be a drug addict.’
This post is to help raise awareness and for a friend. If you can help..please visit thejenniferact.com website for more information.
Mother fights for better drug laws Act in honor of Largo woman would give families more intervention resources
LARGO – For four years, Sharon Blair has fought to memorialize her daughter’s life through legislation that could save other drug-addicted sons and daughters in need of intervention.
Four years ago, and months before Jennifer Reynolds died of an accidental prescription drug overdose in Largo, her mother stood in a Pinellas County courthouse and begged the judge to intervene.
“My daughter’s going to die if you do not court order her to long-term drug treatment,” Blair remembered pleading. “My child will not be here. She’s going to die. She’s dying right now.”
Blair filed a total of five petitions for involuntary substance abuse treatment under Florida’s Marchman Act, which allows the court to observe and assess a potentially addicted person for 72 hours. Only one of those petitions – filed in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Hardee counties – was granted. And the minimal treatment wasn’t enough, Blair said.
“Three days for a substance-addicted person on opiates or heroin, that’s nothing. They’re not even finished detoxing in 72 hours,” she said.
Reynolds struggled with drug addiction for 13 years while her mother and family watched and tried fruitlessly to help. The addiction only got worse as time went on, Blair said.
In January 2009, a Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office deputy knocked on Blair’s door in the middle of the night and confirmed her worse fear. Reyonds had been taken to the Largo Medical Center, but she had died with multiple drugs in her blood, just weeks after her 29th birthday.
“I was trying to save her. I was trying to help her,” Blair said, grief bringing fresh tears. “I failed her when she needed help, and it hurts. It’s been four years, and I still miss Jennifer every day.
“I just could not get any attention on her situation.”
In the wake of her daughter’s death, Blair has become an advocate for reform in Florida’s drug treatment laws. The Marchman Act doesn’t offer families enough tools for treatment, she argues. So for four years, Blair has pushed for a new law: the Jennifer Act.
The proposed bill addresses what Blair sees as discrepancies in the current system. To start, the enforced policies of Marchman Act can vary from county to county. The fee to file a petition, which also varies, can cost as much as $400. The mandated observation period is too short, the supervision inadequate and the funding to support treatment limited, Blair explained. Pinellas County, in particular, doesn’t have a facility that provides the secure beds that the Marchman Act requires.
Blair is calling for the petition fee to be lowered, the system become more streamlined between counties and the state to provide more facilities that could house drug-addicted patients during the assessment period.
She also wants long-term treatment to be more readily available. Blair remembered that while she was trying to help her own daughter, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s daughter Noelle also was struggling with drug addiction. The 24-year-old was arrested and charged with prescription fraud in January 2002. In her case, the judge ordered a residential drug treatment program, which Noelle Bush completed in August 2003, according to media reports at the time.
“I believe that was an intervention tool that saved her life, and the governor still has his daughter. That’s all I asked for for my child,” Blair said. “Not everybody in Florida is rich. We’re not the governor. We’re just ordinary people trying to save our kids’ lives. It’s a really messed up system, and it really needs to change.”
Unfortunately, the cost of better drug treatment can be substantial and has kept the Jennifer Act from gaining traction, Blair said.
“That’s my biggest hurdle: finding the funding for the fiscal impact,” she said.
When she first started lobbying for the new bill in the state legislature, Blair said she knew only what her high school civics lessons had taught her. She’s learned the hard way how to become her own advocate.
“I just continue to fight for other parents who are in the same place I was, and they’re watching their children die,” she said. “It is a process for me to learn all of it, but I’m not afraid to step out and speak on what I believe is the right thing.”
Soon after Reynolds’ death in 2009, Blair started a website, theJenniferAct.com, and petitioned Florida Sen. Dennis Jones to draft the Jennifer Act. When he decided not to later in the legislative session, Blair upped her efforts and contacted every Florida lawmaker in the following year. The office of Rep. Darryl Rouson took up drafting the bill, but it wasn’t introduced on the floor in 2010.
Finally, Sen. Jack Latvala took up the cause beginning in 2011 and in the following year, the bill named after Jennifer went before its first committee.
This year’s version, Senate Bill 914 has a companion, House Bill 1181, sponsored by Rep. Carl Zimmerman with co-sponsor Rep. Larry Ahern. Neither bill has been heard in committee yet, but Blair remains optimistic.
“I’ve got the most support I’ve ever had,” she said. “Believe it or not, people do know what the Jennifer Act bill is, because I have been a squeaky wheel … I have not let them forget about my child who has died an unmerciful death.”
Blair said she wants her daughter’s life to leave a legacy. Lobbying for that legacy is “more than a full-time job,” she said, and involves hosting rallies and candle vigils, telling her story to media outlets and bringing as much attention to the issue as she can. Blair was on the Dr. Drew Show in April 2011, which garnered national media attention to her cause.
Still, the bill hasn’t made much progress in the Florida legislature.
“Why is this taking so long, I don’t know,” Blair said. “More kids are dying. Every year that I lobby for this, another year goes by and more kids overdose, and it’s just tragic.”
In Indiana, where Blair and her husband Andy bought a house after Jennifer’s death, she pushed for similar legislation. After facing the same funding hurdles as its Florida counterpart, the Indiana version of the Jennifer Act passed as a senate concurrent resolution in March 2012.
Blair would like to see the Jennifer Act become a federal law and recently wrote to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, asking him to consider drafting the bill. But Blair said she’s focused on Florida first and foremost.
“Florida’s where my daughter lived. Florida is where she got her pills. Florida’s where she died,” she said.
Blair has suggested that part of the funding for the Jennifer Act could come from the state Department of Corrections, as an alternative to holding inmates serving time for petty crimes committed because of their addictions.
“Our prisons are overflowing with inmates,” she said. “Instead of housing them and telling them they’re a bad, bad person and we’re going to punish you because you have an addiction, you could use funding to provide substance treatment.”
Blair believes that part of her fight involves changing a judgmental perception of drug addiction within the culture.
“It’s not like leukemia or cancer … where you can get sympathy and you can get help,” she said. “This is a class of society that we are not concerned about: addicted people.”
Most people feel that those addicted “deserve what they get,” and are therefore unforgiving of their actions, Blair said. Aside from finding little financial or emotional support, parents face a stigma of having drug-addicted children, coupled with a legitimate fear for their safety.
“It’s a very frustrating, emotional experience to go through,” she said.
Blair said she wanted to emphasize that addiction is a disease that doesn’t discriminate. Reynolds had the support of a loving family, which included a sister and two brothers along with her parents.
“We’re a strong Christian family. Jennifer was raised in church,” Blair said.
Reynolds, who had a son named Trey, worked as a customer service representative in the family’s printing business in Clearwater when she could. She moved in and out of her parents’ home while she battled the addiction, but kept up communication with her mother no matter where she was living.
She knew her mother loved her, Blair said.
“It was a long battle. Jennifer suffered 13 years. I grieved 13 years while she was alive, before she died,” she said. “There’s just been a lot of pain and a lot of suffering. I just pray that God will take it all and just use it to help somebody.”
Blair urges her fellow citizens to contact Florida lawmakers to demand the passage of the Jennifer Act before the legislative session ends May 3.
“Families will do anything in their power to help a loved one that’s dying,” Blair said. “If we offer a tool to help families intervene and save their kids’ lives and get treatment services for their kids, it is the most humane thing in America that we can do,” Blair said.
For more information, including specifics of the Jennifer Act and updates on its progress through the Florida legislature, visit TheJenniferAct.com.