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Parents of Plant High cheerleader urge others to learn from her death by heroin overdose

Cliff and Dawn Golden speak with a Tampa Bay Times reporter at their South Tampa home on Friday, July 21, 2017. Their daughter Katie Golden died from a drug overdose in April 2017. She was only 17-years-old.
Published Jul. 27, 2017

TAMPA — Since their youngest daughter died from an overdose of heroin, just weeks before her high school graduation, Dawn and Cliff Golden have searched desperately for something to do about it.

They had already done so much to put Katie Golden on the right path — getting her treatment for substance abuse, keeping money from her so she couldn't buy drugs, pushing online school so she could focus on her studies.

"I'd describe myself as a helicopter parent, and I would do anything for my child, and I did it every single day, every hour of the day," Cliff Golden said.

Now, the Goldens, both 52, are doing what they can to warn other parents about the dangers children face from drug overdose — a scourge that killed more than 52,000 Americans in 2015, at a rate among the U.S. population that's more than double what it was when Katie was born 17 years ago.

The Goldens also are helping a fledgling advocacy group that seeks to lift the stigma from the kind of mental health problems Katie suffered from. And the couple is working to see someone held responsible for her death.

"You have to find the good," Dawn Golden said, "and make something good out of evil."

Victim of an opioid epidemic that shows no signs of slowing, Katie was a senior at Plant High School when she died during her final semester. A musically inclined cheerleader, she was set to attend Eastern Florida State College in Melbourne and study to become a social worker.

She lived with her parents in a Bayshore Boulevard condominium and was the youngest of three children. An older brother and sister had moved away from home. Her father works in sales for an information technology company and her mother is an engineer with a communications firm.

Her parents knew Katie smoked enough marijuana to cause problems in her life, but they don't know whether she ever used heroin before taking her fatal dose on April 14, Good Friday, a school holiday.

She told her mother that day she was going to an addiction group meeting and then to her job at a bowling alley until 1 a.m. Dawn Golden texted her daughter about when to pick her up, she said. She texted again and again when she got no response.

She finally received a phone call at 6 a.m. Saturday from Tampa police, informing her that an ambulance was taking Katie to the emergency room.

"They were able to get her heart restarted, but she had severe brain damage because her brain hadn't had oxygen for so long," Dawn Golden said.

Easter Sunday came and went, and on Tuesday, her mother's birthday, Katie was removed from life support — a tragic end along a path her parents had struggled for years to divert her from.

• • •

Katie was sweet and kind but didn't feel like she fit in, her parents said.

She always had a hard time in school and with self-control, Dawn Golden said. She was diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder in eighth grade. High school was particularly hard. She suffered from depression and low self-esteem.

"She was experiencing those things before she ever got into pot. And then I think 10th grade, she got into pot, and it made her feel better."

They put her into a number of mental health and addiction programs, most recently the Phoenix House in Brandon, specializing in treating youths.

"We were always trying to get her help," Cliff Golden said.

They couldn't imagine her descending into heroin use, let alone joining the growing number of people who overdose on heroin and other opioids — a number that quadrupled between 2002 and 2014, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We never thought it was this type of drugs," Cliff Golden said. "We knew she liked to smoke a lot of pot. We had no idea that she was into this kind of stuff."

The day before her overdose, she passed a drug test. She hadn't tested positive for illegal drugs in two months.

"A lot of people still think of addiction as a character failure," Dawn Golden said. "That's not true."

About one in four people who try heroin become addicted, said Caleb Banta-Green, principal research scientist at the University of Washington's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. Among those who do, Banta-Green said, treatment with methadone or buprenorphine cut the odds of a fatal overdose in half.

For parents, having conversations about substance use and abuse can be difficult, he said, but it is vital that they do so.

"Substance use is normative in our society, and we really need to talk about when to use and how to use," Banta-Green said. "This is not easy work. It's about parents having purposeful, explicit conversations with their kids."

Dawn Golden is spreading the same message.

"I just want more parents to be aware," she said.

She sees mental health awareness and treatment as a necessary part of the effort.

• • •

In Early April, Dawn Golden met Marie Borland, a Tampa lawyer and the president of Changing Minds Tampa Bay, a new nonprofit advocating for mental health awareness.

Weeks later, when Katie died, her mother turned over the girl's memorial fund, nearly $3,000, to the organization. Borland said it was her first significant source of money.

"It was the most humbling thing that's ever happened to me," Borland said. "It was shocking to receive her call."

Borland attended the funeral and found that Katie reminded her of one of her own loved ones.

"She had all the qualities that anyone would need to be successful, if she could have just gotten through the very difficult time of adolescence," Borland said. "Just a life cut way too short."

Dawn Golden said she and Changing Minds are working to distribute bracelets at local schools to promote mental health awareness.

Borland said one key goal for her organization is to help students feel comfortable seeking treatment.

"Research shows that when someone doesn't feel judged or labeled or stigmatized, they're encouraged to seek recovery," she said.

While overdose deaths have increased in general, they've remained constant for teens, said Kelly Gurka, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida.

"We've not observed the same increase in fatal drug overdoses in 15-to-19-year olds that we've observed in other age groups," Gurka said.

Still, for people with both mental and drug disorders, simply treating the addiction isn't enough, she said.

"You need to take a comprehensive treatment approach that addresses both."

• • •

Even as they look to the good that can come from their daughter's death, the Goldens hope to hold someone accountable for it.

The night she overdosed, according to a police report, Katie was at the Harbour Island home of Titan Goodson, then 17, who had dated Katie on and off over the past year.

Goodson told police they both sniffed heroin between 8:30 and 9 p.m. and passed out, the report said. He awoke but Katie didn't, he said. He placed ice packs on her throughout the night but couldn't rouse her, according to the report. Around 5:30, he said, her finger nails were blue and she felt cold. Someone — the report does not say who — called 911.

The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office found that Katie died from opiate intoxication.

Police could find no evidence pointing to who supplied the drugs, according to the report.

Goodson, now 18, faces no charges in connection with Katie's overdose. He was released on bail from jail this week following an unrelated arrest by Tampa police on charges of hydrocodone, Xanax and cocaine possession.

Sherman Brod, Goodson's grandfather and a Tampa lawyer who acted as his attorney when police questioned him about Katie's overdose, declined to comment for this story.

Cliff Golden said he and his wife have met with the State Attorney's Office about their daughter's overdose.

"We really want to have some closure on — some justice for Katie," Dawn Golden said.

She understands it may be a long shot.

"I think it is a stretch because, what the police were trying to say is, it's hard to prove that whatever Katie took came from a specific person," she said.

For the mourning parents, taking action in the wake of Katie's death provides a sense of purpose. Cliff Golden said friends have told him they're speaking more openly with their kids about hard drugs.

Staying busy during the past three months has served another purpose, too, he says.

"I believe what we're doing is delaying some of the grief."

Contact Langston Taylor at ltaylor@tampabay.com. Follow @langstonitaylor.

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