Silent epidemic

Former judge now views drug crisis in a new light

By Linda Laderman
Legal News

Early in her legal career, retired district court judge and former Macomb County assistant prosecutor Linda Davis focused on incarceration for people charged with addiction-related offenses, rather than on understanding why people with drug problems were repeat offenders.

“As a prosecutor, I ran our drug unit, then I became a judge. I really thought I was doing society a favor by putting people who were drug users and drug seekers in jail,” said Davis, who was appointed to the 41B District Court in 2000.

Davis retired this past March to become the executive director of Families Against Narcotics (FAN,) a group that supports those in recovery and their families. It’s a position she comes to with a personal understanding of the drug related issues every community faces.

“Initially, I did not understand that without treatment a person addicted to drugs just came back out with the same problems that sent them to jail,” said Davis, who earned her juris doctor degree from Wayne State University Law School. “There just weren’t a lot of studies that talked about drug addiction before the opioid crises became synonymous with it. We thought we were doing the right thing but in reality we were doing a lot of harm to individuals and families.”

At the time she never imagined that one of those families could be hers.

“About 14 years ago, when I was looking into establishing a drug court, I was living next door to a Fraser police officer, who told me that nine young people in the area had died from heroin addiction in a relatively short period of time,” Davis said. “That was very alarming because in my 13 years running Macomb County’s drug unit, I’d only seen one case like the ones she mentioned, so this was something new to our community.”

It wasn’t long after her conversation with her neighbor that Davis experienced firsthand how opioid addiction affects families.

“We learned that our 17-year-old daughter had developed an addiction to the drugs she’d been given after knee surgery. I was devastated and ashamed. It was extremely hard to talk about in the beginning because I felt like I failed. Before that I was still looking at addiction as a moral failure,” Davis said. “I didn’t understand that people got addicted because of sports injuries and teeth being pulled. That was the case with our daughter. She was prescribed Vicodin after a knee surgery and we noticed very subtle differences in her personality from that point on.”

During that period and in her capacity as a judge, Davis was asked to attend a town hall meeting dealing with drug addiction. When she got there she saw other parents who were having experiences similar to hers. She couldn’t ignore the distress of the parents who attended the meeting, so Davis made her family’s struggle public.

“When I got there, I saw parents who were going through the same thing. I felt like a hypocrite, giving advice without really owning what was going on in my own family.

It was apparent to me that here was a lot of shame and humiliation in the group. We were dealing with sick children. That should not have been the case,” Davis said.

“I was not going to bring it up. I was embarrassed. I thought if I talked about it I would never get elected again. But I did it because I realized it doesn’t make us weak to own our weaknesses it makes us stronger to own them. It’s freeing because you no longer are living a lie,” she added.

Davis was re-elected to her seat on the bench, but the stigma she felt remained when she sought treatment for her daughter.

“It was clear that the stigma attached to drug addiction stood in the way of getting good viable help for people. The treatment facilities we called did not show any compassion and were not encouraging about the possibility of recovery. All of those things made me realize that the system needed to change,” Davis said.

“I truly believe that this was a blessing that was given to me because I had the ability and connections to start helping people understand that this is not a choice, it’s a disease, not a moral failing. We are wasting taxpayer dollars by putting people in jail untreated.”

Through FAN, Davis has shared her personal and professional experiences with the organization’s statewide network.

“As hard as it was to talk about it, somebody had to start the conversation, and that’s what FAN has allowed me to do. We call this a silent epidemic, and the reason it is silent is because there is so much shame brought upon families and people with substance abuse disorders that it’s often a barrier to people getting effective treatment,” Davis said.

Founded in 2007, FAN has 22 chapters across the state and launched their first out of state chapter two years ago in Madison, N.C.

“FAN has made a huge impact in Michigan and across the country. We have 22 chapters with thousands of members in our program and families are talking about this.

There is such a need for family support and for people to have a safe place where they can go and talk about this. And I think the fact that law enforcement is
increasingly receptive to the idea of being a conduit for help instead of incarceration cannot be overlooked,” Davis said.

One of the programs FAN started is a program called “Hope Not Handcuffs,” an initiative that brings law enforcement and community organizations together to find treatment options for individuals seeking help to reduce their dependency with heroin, prescription drugs, and alcohol.

“The program was inspired by a police chief, from a small rural area in Massachusetts, who just got sick and tired of going to the families he’d known his whole life to tell them their child died from a drug overdose,” Davis said.

“Even so, when we first started the program it was difficult to get police departments to get on board. Now we have almost 80 police departments in eight different counties partnering with us, and that number is growing almost daily,” Davis said.

“We’ve received inquiries from judges and law enforcement people across the country who are interested in starting their own Hope Not Handcuffs program.”
As for her daughter, her life is moving in a positive direction, and for that Davis said she is grateful.

“She has not used any opiates in over 10 years, she is working full time and has started back to school. Life is moving forward for her,” Davis said. “I pray for her every day and hope that she stays on the path she’s on right now.”

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