‘Only when he was in a coma, could we make decisions for him’

Charlotte Wethington holds a photo of her son, Casey, who died of a heroin overdose. She led the push for the 2004 Casey’s Law, which makes it easier for Kentucky families to get addicts involuntary treatment.
Charlotte Wethington holds a photo of her son, Casey, who died of a heroin overdose. She led the push for the 2004 Casey’s Law, which makes it easier for Kentucky families to get addicts involuntary treatment. CaseysLaw.org

In my last column, I talked a bit about involuntary treatment for substance use disorder under the 2004 Casey’s Law. Charlotte Wethington, a Northern Kentucky recovery advocate whose son, Casey, died of a heroin overdose in 2002, spearheaded the effort to pass involuntary treatment legislation in Kentucky. She was kind enough to grant me an interview.

Q: Tell me a little about your son Casey and his struggles with addiction.

A: Casey was an only child, and a typical little boy; he loved anything that had wheels and a motor. There were two speeds for Casey, either a dead stop or full speed ahead. I didn’t see that as foreshadowing for things to come.

I began to notice a difference in Casey in high school when all the things he had been interested in started to fall away. He never could figure out who he fit in with, he’d say ‘Mom I’m not a farm boy and I’m not a jock.’

Q: Did you suspect drugs played a role?

A: We lived in place called Morning View, Ky. How idyllic is that? It sounds like the perfect place to live, but we were just across the river from Cincinnati right around the time when OxyContin showed up in that area.

In the hospital after his first overdose he said ‘Mom I have a love affair with heroin.’ We were so ignorant about drugs…growing up when I was in high school the drug was alcohol…I never saw marijuana until I was away at college. All of that was just so foreign to me.

Q: What was his experience like in the treatment facility?

A: As soon as we walked in the door (the staff) said ‘Well, if he wants to leave, he can and there’s nothing we can do about it.’ Mmmm OK, well six days later he left. Shortly after that he was back to using.

It was just a while later that he overdosed again, in June. The final overdose was on Aug. 9, 2002. He was in a coma for 10 days and we had to make the decision to let him go. I look back now and think did I give up too soon? If we had kept him on life support longer would he have come around?

Q: Before Casey’s law, what recourse did a family member have if they were concerned about an individual who wouldn’t seek treatment?

A: All the times that he was overdosing and the times that we were trying to intervene, we were told that we were trying to take his rights away from him. And it was only when he was lying in a coma that we were allowed to make decisions for him. It was too late then, too late for us to try to make good decisions for Casey who was incapable of making good decisions for himself.

So when you hear people say they have to hit bottom, well what is bottom? For a lot of people their bottom is death. The bottom line is this: People have to be alive to recover.

Q: What made you decide to champion legislation that later became Casey’s Law?

A: In going to Al-Anon meetings, I met a mom who had used a law with her son in Florida, and it was called the Marchman Act. So that was the model that I took to my legislator.

When Casey died, I didn’t want to live and didn’t know how I was going to. I used to wander through the grocery store trying to shop. I would wander up and down the aisles and walk out with nothing. Just trying to put a meal together felt like an impossible task. I could hardly function.

Casey ended up getting arrested between his second and final overdose. We went to court, not to bail him out, but to beg the judge for treatment for Casey. The bailiff refused to allow us to give the judge the drug history we had written down, and so he was released on his own recognizance, with the warning he would receive a summons within 90 days.

Well, the summons came the day of Casey’s funeral. Too late. I decided then that perhaps I could make a difference for the families that would come after us.

I wrote a letter to the judge and told him that whenever he had the chance to intervene on someone else like Casey to please take that opportunity, and I did the same for the prosecuting attorney.

Q: Is the law complicated for a family member or friend to initiate?

A: There is a simple form available online that the petitioner files at the circuit clerk’s office. There is no filing fee, and an attorney is not needed to complete the form. A judge will review the petition and decide if an evaluation by two qualified health professionals, one of them being a physician, is warranted.

If deemed necessary, two medical professionals will then evaluate the individual and make a recommendation to the court. The judge can then court order an individual to treatment.

Q: What about an individual’s rights?

A: We were never trying to take Casey’s rights away; we were trying to give him the right to live. Casey’s rights had been taken away from him long before by the drugs. Casey kept his rights all the way to the end, the dead end. Now what purpose did that serve? If recovery is our goal, does it not behoove us to do everything we can?

Q: Are there misconceptions about the law or do you have any pointers for someone thinking about using it?

A: It is helpful to have appointments scheduled with the qualified health professionals before the first court date. If the judge decides to order the evaluations it’s good to have those times and locations already in place.

Treatment doesn’t have to cost your life savings. We are fortunate in Kentucky to have Recovery Kentucky Centers that are free of charge, and again there is no filing fee for Casey’s Law.

Another misconception is that you have to have an attorney to file the petition. The county attorney acts as the representative for the petitioner and the public defender’s office can act for the respondent.

Lastly, some people say involuntary treatment doesn’t work. The person has to want it in order for treatment to work. What I say is, a person has to get to the place that they can want it for it to work. And when your brain is so distorted and damaged from the disease you may not be able to make that decision on your own.

Q: Do you have any parting words you’d like to share with readers?

A: The one piece of advice I wish I’d gotten before Casey died: If you think there is something wrong there probably is, act now.

Thomas Richards, who is in recovery, works as a community banker in Eastern Kentucky. Reach him at TomNRichards@gmail.com. For more information on Casey’s Law, visit CaseysLaw.org.