In 2010, my son’s lawyers recommended he be placed into a New York drug treatment court for driving under the influence of alcohol. This would change not only his life, but also all of my family’s lives forever.
I have experienced drug treatment court as a supportive mom, and have learned more since 2010 than I care to know about the stigma that substance use generates.
We did not feel shame that my son was addressing his misuse of substances. We supported his efforts and he openly talked about the ups and downs of his life. But drug treatment court and probation set a new level of horror that we had never witnessed before. It is the dirty, dark secret that many families keep to themselves.
Not only are participants shamed in a public forum, but family members are too – humiliated and demeaned for their support of their own child, partner or spouse. At times it is not only the participant that is under the drug treatment court supervision, but the families as well. Private medical information is aired in public, family shortcomings as well as romantic relationships and breakups are discussed. Hearsay or gossip is treated as truth. Sitting in court, I learned more about these participants’ personal lives than I know about some of my friends. I watched children being taken away, mothers crying and fathers in desperation. I watched police shackle participants in and out of court as judges and lawyers berate their failure to stay “clean” – all under the disguise of medical treatment. “It is for your own good and safety,” the judge would say. How can prison ever be for your own good for a medical issue?
Many times, the agonizing decision to plead guilty and accept drug court restrictions is simply money-related; it costs too much to go to court and defend yourself. Lawyers will state that when you complete the program and graduate, your record will be expunged, but that is not the case. Background checks will reveal that drug court was recommended and that you received addiction treatment. Employers may balk and refuse to hire, insurance companies may report that you have used your max coverage and increase premiums, and state benefits and housing may be denied.
My son never finished his court mandated treatment program; there was no graduation, no final certificate. On July 4, 2012 my son was found dead in his NYC East Side apartment. He was 29 years old. He was a vibrant, well-educated, working professional in New York City; he was also being treated by his own physicians for substance issues. He recognized his need to take care of his health and he was getting the professional help that he needed. He was doing well and was stable but, as everyone finds, some days are not as easy as others.
We know much of the dilemma my son faced on his last day, in July, from the information in his apartment. We know that he was in a crisis situation. We know that he could not present himself to the emergency room without breaking his probation. We know that the NY 911 Good Samaritan Law wouldn’t have protected him because he was involved with a drug treatment court north of the city. On the day he died, he didn’t go to the hospital as we had practiced time and time again; he did not call 911 as he had before. No one made a call. He passed away in his home in Manhattan, even though he lived one block from Lenox Hill Hospital.
My son may be alive today if he did what he always did. He was taught to call 911, just like every child. But because of punitive drug laws, and the stipulations of drug treatment court, he hesitated and questioned whether it was worth it. A call was not made and neither did he walk one block to the hospital as he had before. He died like many others, alone.
No mother should lose a cherished son this way. There are nearly 2,500 drug court programs operating in the United States. We need to hold judges responsible for the medical decisions made under their watch and hold drug treatment courts accountable for what they profess to do. We need to expand 911 Good Samaritan laws to protect all of those that may be dying – not just select groups. No one should fear punishment for seeking lifesaving emergency care.
My son is home now. I visit him on the 29th step of the Morris Island lighthouse, in South Carolina. I continue to support its restoration in memory of my son.