“Whose child has to die before somebody does something?”
That was the question my former aide, Johnnie Easton, asked me shortly after I was elected. It was one of what would become many sleepless nights she had to call me to tell me she would be late because she was out searching the streets for her daughter, Tasha.
In mid-November of 2016, she got the answer to that question. Hers.
Since that horrible day in November when she called to tell me Tasha had been found on the floor dead of a suspected overdose in a kitchen in some faraway apartment, I have lived with the guilt. Why didn’t I do something sooner?
I believe there is a public perception that we are doing something. We all see the billboards, the television advertisements for drug rehab centers. They are so glamorous in South Florida. Oceanfront estates and equestrian spreads for those fighting addiction. Places their loved ones can send them to miraculously get better in 30 days.
Or the other side of the issue. The homeless person on the street who seems intoxicated. I believe most people think that someone else will take care of that person – like law enforcement or a homeless center. Surely in a county as affluent as Palm Beach County, these services are abundant. And easy to find.
Wrong. On both accounts.
Nothing about addiction is glamorous. Nothing about rehab centers in South Florida is glamorous. Nothing is free. And those that are publicly funded are in such short supply that we could never possibly meet the demand of those in need.
This is what happened to Tasha. She asked for help. There were no beds. Apply for Medicaid they told her. As if figuring out that paperwork for a sober person wasn’t difficult enough, try doing it high on heroin. Or do what some do to get help – threaten to kill yourself and pray you get Baker Acted, Florida’s forced mental health commitment statute. Or, even better, do what some parents have been forced to pray for at times – get arrested. Then, maybe just then, you can get some drug treatment in the Palm Beach County Jail.
This is not how we treat people in America. All people – regardless of illness – deserve immediate medical attention when facing a medical crisis. They deserve that treatment to be safe, affordable, humane, and dignified. And we need to speak up and demand it from our elected leaders in Washington, D.C., and Tallahassee, our doctors, insurance companies, the treatment industry and local leaders like me.
I recently held a community conversation on this crisis because I wanted to hear from the families. Families are demanding to be heard. Take the time to listen to them. They offer the best hope at gaining insight to a preventable epidemic. One mother told a story about her son saying to her, “Mom, I thought I was a piece of garbage because they treated me like a piece of garbage.”
Our friends, family members, neighbors are not trash. They are people. And they need help.
Please tell Gov. Rick Scott this is a public health emergency. We need his leadership, the state’s resources and our decision-makers to lend a hand so we can defeat this enemy that is killing our children.
Do it for Tasha. Don’t make her death in vain.
MELISSA MCKINLAY, WEST PALM BEACH
Editor’s note: Melissa McKinlay represents Dist. 6 on the Palm Beach County Board of Commissioners.
Over 500 people – our friends, our neighbors, our family, our daughters, sons, grandparents, coworkers – died last year in Palm Beach County.