By Jennifer's mother, Sharon
In January 2009, a Pinellas County Deputy showed up at Sharon Blair’s door and delivered the news: her daughter, Jennifer, had died of a drug overdose.
Fueled by the pain of her loss and anger over what she felt was a preventable death, Blair has spent the past seven years working as a social justice advocate and pushing the Jennifer Act, a bill named after her daughter, that would empower families to help loved ones who are struggling with addiction.
After years of trying, Blair’s attempts paid off on March 11 when legislators passed a bill that includes reforms to the states mental health and substance abuse treatment systems. Blair feels it is a small step in the right direction.
Jennifer Reynolds had been struggling with an addiction to prescription pills for over a decade before her death. Over the course of that time, Blair sought the states help and filed five different petitions under the Marchman Act, which allows for the involuntary treatment of substance abusers for three days. Only one of the petitions was granted, and 72 hours wasn’t enough time to help her daughter: “She was dying in front of me.”
“I think Florida let our family down. I was in front of Pinellas County judges many times begging for help for Jennifer and I told them that she was going to die… It’s not a game… You are literally begging (if you can imagine as a parent) for your child’s life.”
The Jennifer Act aims to give people in Blair’s position the power to help their child, “I needed a voice when Jennifer was addicted,” Blair said. “I needed somebody who could’ve spoken on my behalf because I was so paralyzed with fear.” The bill ensures that Medicaid is provided for inpatient treatment services and includes education programs for judges, public defenders and lawmakers.
Blair eventually hopes to revamp the involuntary commitment law: “I have power of attorney over my mother, who is 81 years old. I have legal rights to make decisions as her advocate because she is elderly and can’t make medical decisions for herself sometimes.” Because Jennifer was a legal adult, Blair was unable to intervene as she watched her daughter struggle with a disease that would eventually take her life. “I needed the right to be able to do that for Jennifer just like I can do it now for my mom. It’s the same thing. You are stepping in for somebody until they are stable or get clarity and then you can give them the power to make medical decisions.”
Blair found her calling in this work and has shared her story across the nation: “I know a lot of moms whose kids have died and they tell me, ‘How do you do this?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know. It’s just know it’s a mission that God gave me,” she said. “He allowed it and I suffered greatly—still do—and through the pain it fuels me to make the world a better place for other people.”
For more information, visit the website: TheJenniferAct.com