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Grieving mother's mission: Change Marchman Act to save other addicts

Sharon Blair peered through the window at the medical examiner's office and saw her 29-year-old daughter, Jennifer Reynolds Gonzalez, lying on the gurney. A sheet was pulled up to Gonzalez's chin. Her forehead was furrowed. Her face appeared taut with pain. She died of an accidental overdose

of multiple drugs, including prescription painkillers. Pneumonia and a kidney infection also contributed to her death.

Years ago, desperate to save her daughter, Blair sought to revamp the Marchman Act, a state law that can help family members get their loved ones treatment for alcohol and substance abuse.

Now, Blair knew she had to finish what she started.

"I don't want another mother to come down here and see a dead child with a white sheet on them," said Blair, 51. "I don't want other people to lose their kids like this."

• • •

Blair and her husband, Andy, who have lived in the Largo area for 25 years, believe their daughter's addiction kicked into high gear about a dozen years ago.

As a young girl, Gonzalez, then Reynolds, was "bright and cheery" and active in the church. At Pinellas Park High, she was a cheerleader and active in student government.

Around the time she was 15, her parents noticed what seemed like normal teenage angst.

They didn't know it, but she had started smoking marijuana and cigarettes. Her grades were dropping. She cut her sandy blond hair and bleached it platinum. She started wearing lots of makeup.

She dropped out of high school, and eventually got her GED.

A year or so later, Gonzalez's boyfriend called the Blairs and said he and Gonzalez were addicted to drugs.

Blair frantically called a slew of treatment programs. Her daughter started seeing an addiction specialist in Tampa. But she couldn't stop using.

Over the next several years, Gonzalez used cocaine and heroin and became addicted to prescription painkillers.

She tried to quit, but relapsed repeatedly.

Blair ended up filing five Marchman Act petitions for her daughter: two in Pinellas County, two in Hillsborough County and one in Hardee County.

Filing fees varied from place to place and judges handled her request differently.

For example, there are no filing fees for Marchman Act petitions in Hillsborough and Hardee. But in Pinellas, the fee is $300.

The handling of the Marchman Act also varies from one jurisdiction to another, state officials and advocates say.

Blair said one time in Hillsborough, a judge refused to order an assessment for her daughter. Another time, Gonzalez was ordered into detox and referred to outpatient treatment, but she didn't go.

In Pinellas, Gonzalez was also ordered into detox, but didn't follow up.

In Hardee, the judge was more receptive, and he moved swiftly, so Gonzalez was able to get into a residential treatment program.

Blair said the process could be maddening.

"You end up as a parent trying to rescue your child, period," Blair said. "In the process of doing that, you end up dealing with the legal system because in the end that's all you have.

"Without their intervention, the only opportunity is going to be incarceration or death and in Jennifer's case it was death."

• • •

Now, Blair wants to amend the Marchman Act, calling her plan the Jennifer Act. Her aim is to make the law, more consistent, more user-friendly for families and more accountable.

Her recommendations include making filing fees the same statewide and providing facilities for people with addictions that people cannot leave at will.

The state currently has five secure assessment and stabilization facilities, which are generally locked from the inside so staff can monitor who comes in. But patients can leave. The main things keeping them there, in most cases, are court orders or their own wills to recover.

Blair also would like the Jennifer Act to create a watchdog team that communicates with the courts, the state's Office of Drug Control and treatment programs.

Service providers also think there's room for improvement.

"The problem with the Marchman Act is that it was never well funded," said Nancy Hamilton, chief executive office of Operation PAR.

"There are tremendous tools in the Marchman Act if you have the will and commitment and resources," said Richard Brown, CEO of Agency for Community Treatment Services Inc. of Tampa. "Where it falls short is in the resources and commitment of the court system."

• • •

Blair plans to work with state officials and lawmakers to hone the Jennifer Act. And hopes that legislation will be introduced next year.

Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, will meet with Blair sometime next month, after the legislative session, his assistant said.

Meanwhile, the Office of Drug Control is working to improve the current law. Director William Janes wrote Blair two weeks ago and said he plans to meet with her after the session as well.

Blair, a Christian, feels God had a purpose for her daughter, maybe to help others struggling the way she did. That's why she's so determined.

"I'm not going to give up," Blair said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or 445-4155.

3,737

Total number of Marchman Act involuntary admissions, fiscal year 2007-08

Marchman Act Involuntary Assessment and Stabilization petitions

Criteria: Reason to believe someone is substance abuse impaired and has lost control over the substance, and has inflicted or threatened to inflict physical harm on self or others.

Who can file them for adults: Spouse, guardian, relative, private practitioner, licensed substance abuse provider, any three adults with knowledge of the person.

Assessment and stabilization: Generally up to 72 hours with involuntary petitions.

What's next: A petition for involuntary treatment can be filed after assessment and stabilization.

Source: Florida Department of Children and Families

Grieving mother's mission: Change Marchman Act to save other addicts 04/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 11, 2009 4:31am]
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