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Jennifer’s legacy
Mother’s grief fuels push for substance abuse reform law
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Photo courtesy of SHARON BLAIR
Sharon Blair, left, has worked for seven years to pass the Jennifer Act in honor of her daughter Jennifer Reynolds, right, who died of a drug overdose in Largo in 2009. In March, her lobbying finally paid off with passage of a bill that will reform substance abuse treatment in the state. The governor has not yet signed the bill.
LARGO – In January 2009, a knock on the door of Sharon Blair’s Largo home changed the course of her life. It was from a Pinellas County deputy, who told her that her daughter had died from a drug overdose.

That pain and the knowledge that it could’ve been prevented have fueled Blair for the past seven years as she has pushed Florida lawmakers to pass the Jennifer Act, a bill named after her daughter, Jennifer Reynolds, that would help those struggling with prescription drug addiction.

Year after year, though, the bill failed to gain traction, and Blair’s frustrations with the political process mounted.

On March 11, however, Blair’s relentless lobbying, and some political maneuvering by Sen. Jack Latvala, paid off when legislators passed a bill that includes reforms to the state’s mental-health and substance-abuse treatment systems.

While CS/SB 12 is not what Blair had originally envisioned, it does include pieces of the Jennifer Act that Blair hopes empower families to help loved ones in need.

“(Drug addiction) is a family disease, so the whole family suffers – their children, their parents, grandparents,” Blair said. “The ripple effects reach far. So to pass legislation, you’re not just helping one person who is addicted. You are helping families, and there are multiple families. So that is the pride that I feel, that we’ve accomplished something in Pinellas County and in the state of Florida, which is where Jennifer lived and died. I feel proud that, in her memory, we’ve done something really wonderful.”

All that is left is for Gov. Rick Scott to sign the bill. It was sent to him April 1 and he has two weeks to enact it into law. When signed, the bill would take effect July 1.

“Anger is what fueled me”

For more than a decade before her death, Reynolds struggled with an addiction to prescription pills. Blair wasn’t going to sit idly by and watch her daughter slowly die, so she sought the state’s help.

She filed five petitions in three counties under the Marchman Act, which allows for the involuntary treatment of substance abusers for three days. Only one of those petitions was granted, and Blair says 72 hours wasn’t nearly enough to help her daughter.

Just months after asking a Pinellas County judge for help, Blair’s 29-year-old daughter, who was a mother herself, was dead.

Blair said the Jennifer Act could’ve given her the power she needed to save her daughter’s life.

“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 and I can take over her affairs,” Blair said. “I have the right to do that, but I didn’t have the right to do that with Jennifer because she was over 18. 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 that power back to make medical decisions.”

Blair hasn’t forgotten or forgiven and she said the passing of the bill is the least the state could do to make a difference.

“I think Florida owes me that,” Blair said. “I know that sounds crass and maybe rude, but I don’t mean it that way. I think Florida kind of 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. So I feel like the judicial system in Pinellas County really let us down, and it cost my daughter’s life. It’s not a game, it’s not someone coming in there using some kind of shock factor to a judge. You are literally begging, if you can imagine as a parent, for your child’s life.”

Blair didn’t want other families to suffer the same way, so she began her mission to improve substance abuse treatment in the state.

“I’m a Christian woman, so this doesn’t even add up when I say this, but anger is what fueled me to start the Jennifer Act mission in 2009,” she said. “I was angry that I was looking at Jennifer laying on a table dead. I was angry that the deaf ears that I was talking to weren’t listening to me. I was angry that I’m at my wit’s end begging for help.”

“They could’ve just said, ‘This is too tough’”

For years, Blair said she found more deaf ears in Tallahassee. Eventually, local legislators Rep. Chris Latvala and Sen. Jack Latvala took up the cause and continued to push and amend the bill each session.

“I’m thankful to them because they could’ve just said, ‘This is too tough, I’m getting beat up every year when I go to the statehouse and fight for this, so I’m going to quit,’ but they didn’t. And I appreciate that,” she said.

In the latest session, though, SB 1336 was starting to gain ground, passing two subcommittees. It died in Appropriations, however, because of concerns over its fiscal impact.

The failure didn’t slow Sen. Latvala. He noticed that Sen. Rene Garcia had a similar bill that was moving well through the Senate, so he amended portions of the Jennifer Act to Garcia’s bill, which was passed March 11.

The amendment provides for a workgroup to be established in the Department of Children and Families to study the feasibility of advanced directives in situations of substance abuse disorders.

“We just kind of piggybacked on Senate Bill 12 and rode with it and it paid off,” Blair said.

Legislators hope the reforms will prevent stories like Blair’s.

“All too often we hear devastating stories of mental health and substance abuse issues addressed too little, or too late, to avoid heartbreaking consequences,” Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said in a press release. “While government cannot prevent every tragedy, we can do more to ensure people struggling with mental illness or substance abuse find the treatment they need to recover.”

“It’s a mission that God gave me”

For Blair, the passage of the bill is far from the end of her mission.

“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. I 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. And that is the only reason I do it. It’s not for money.”

Blair has shared her story all over the U.S., including most recently at a treatment center in Bowling Green, Florida. Soon, she plans to speak at a new women’s recovery house before she travels to her second home of Indiana, where she helped spearhead similar substance abuse legislation. Blair said she also has been working with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in Indiana on a task force on drug abuse, addiction, prevention and education.

In May, she will speak with the Indiana attorney general and educate lawyers at the Indiana School of Law about involuntary commitment and procedure.

In 2011, Blair traveled to California to appear on “Dr. Drew On Call” on HLN.

She has also partnered with drug prevention nonprofit organizations, held candlelight vigils across the U.S. and has been asked to work with SafePlace, an organization that will train her to become an advocate for children whose parents suffer from substance abuse.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “Totally amazing, because I’m just one person. I’m not an organization. I’m not a not for profit. I’m not a person who makes money doing this. It’s just amazing.”

But Blair said she has found her calling, and a passion to help others trumps any amount of money that she could make in other vocations.

“My grief is so strong and so deep and I’m hurt so bad to lose Jennifer that I feel like, in her memory, I can do some good things and plant good seeds in her memory and watch them grow just to help other people,” she said.
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