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‘Help Me Save Her’

South Boston News
Sandra McCall (right) at her daughter Delilah’s 2014 Bluestone High School graduation. (Contributed photo) / May 08, 2019
Sitting quietly in the back of a Mecklenburg County courtroom Thursday, Sandra McCall of Chase City waited to hear a judge impose the jail time that her 23-year-old daughter, Delilah, would receive for possession of narcotic drugs.

Delilah is a drug addict who faces up to 10 years in prison for the offense. She’s also been charged with making a false statement on a criminal history check, a Class 5 felony that carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

The case was continued until May 8 and McCall left the courthouse promising to return the following week. Delilah went back to her cell at Meherrin River Regional Jail, clean and sober for the first time in years.

McCall is on a crusade to save not only her daughter but others like her, whose lives are at risk from addiction to heroin, opioids, cocaine, crystal meth, and less-known drugs such as “pinks” (U47700, a heroin substitute that is eight times as potent as heroin) and “elephants” (carfentanil, a synthetic opioid created as an elephant tranquilizer). She’s not the only person in the area dealing with the ravages of drug addiction in the family, but she is more vocal than most.

Amid her frustration that nothing else has worked to save her daughter, McCall offered to tell her story and the tortured tale of Delilah’s descent into addiction in the hope that more families will speak out and bring serious attention to the very real drug crisis that exists in Mecklenburg County and across Southside Virginia.

“It’s here and it’s bad. We just don’t talk about it,” says McCall.

McCall, a former corrections worker and CNA with certifications from FEMA and as an emergency vehicle operator, says the death count from drug use is greater than Virginia Department of Health official statistics because too often the cause of death is listed as “cardiac arrest” instead of “accidental overdose.” In 2017, the last year for which records are reported, the Department of Health reported only seven deaths from drug overdoses across the Southside Virginia Health District — encompassing Brunswick, Halifax and Mecklenburg counties.

Mecklenburg Sheriff Bobby Hawkins says that with widespread use of Narcan, overdose victims don’t die; in fact, once revived, they often refuse transport to the hospital. Thus there are no official records of these incidents.

“We’ve arrested individuals and found Narcan in their drug kits alongside their heroin and needles,” said Hawkins. “Now that so many people have access to Narcan, someone in the family may revive another member of the family and not report it” to the police or to health officials.

Still, Hawkins worries about the day when Mecklenburg County may be confronted with news like what happened in Chesterfield County over the weekend, where police responded to six overdoses inside of 24 hours.

Over the past year, McCall says she knows of a dozen families in Mecklenburg County that lost a family member because of drugs. While not all the victims died of an overdose — at least one was murdered, another was a suicide — McCall says the common thread was their involvement in the local drug culture. It’s a culture McCall is all too familiar with after the days, months and years she’s spent trying to save her daughter from an early death.

Seeing her daughter on Thursday renewed her belief that Delilah can turn her life around. McCall says more than one medical professional has told her to “give up,” that her daughter “is a lost cause.”

“At least she’s alive,” McCall says wistfully. “As long as she is in jail, I know she is alive.” It is a hard truth, but one McCall has come to accept over the past six years, as she saw her once bright and beautiful daughter spiral deeper and deeper into addiction. The happy, friendly and curious girl who wrote poetry, drew picturesque art, and who wanted to be a veterinarian or psychologist someday has been replaced by an angry, unkempt soul who stares at you from dead eyes and tells you “the best way to die is high,” her mother says.

Delilah’s drug use began when she was about 17 years old. Her boyfriend at the time offered her pills and marijuana. Delilah chose to consume them. Six years later, McCall says it’s no longer a choice but a need. Delilah takes whatever she can find to get high — heroin, crystal meth and pills, sometimes in combination. She once even snorted cinnamon because there were no drugs in the house.

For the longest time, McCall said Delilah showed no signs of addiction, she maintained her physical appearance, she attended school, earned good grades and held a job. She even earned a full scholarship to attend Liberty University upon graduation from Bluestone High School.

That all changed as Delilah’s drug habit overtook her life. She never went to Liberty, opting instead to take classes at SVCC, but that ended as did the many jobs Delilah held and lost because she would show up too wasted to work or not show up at all.

“You don’t know what it’s like until you find [your child] with grey lips, nearly unconscious, lying in dog feces and urine, surrounded by filth, rotten food and maggots, living conditions so bad you had to be suited up,” says McCall.

She stops short of saying her daughter is safe in jail. “I’m not naïve enough to believe that there are no drugs in prison. As long as she remains there [incarcerated], she’s not on the street, and there’s medical help right there [at the prison].”

Everyday Delilah is not in jail, McCall says she braces herself for the call she hopes will never come — the one saying “we found your daughter, she died from an overdose.” Delilah has almost died three times but was revived each time after receiving Narcan.

Naloxone, better known by the trade name Narcan, is used to rescue or revive a person suffering from an opioid overdose.

Delilah’s story is not unique and while the drugs or their potency change over time, the stories remain the same. Getting high becomes the all-consuming aspect of daily life. Nothing and no one else matters.

Tim Gallion has been clean and sober for over 30 years. He remembers as if it was yesterday, his days using heroin and crystal meth. He started snorting “crank” (crystal meth). He did that for a year before moving on to heroin. He describes that first high “as the nearest thing to seeing God.” Then you crash, you cry, you shake and can’t stop scratching yourself, he explains.

For a while he would do a speedball — a mix of heroin and cocaine — or crystal meth to get ready for work. It would “make me wide open.” He recalls repairing railroad tracks, operating a spike pulling machine while high. “I’d be a mile ahead of the others.”

At night Gallion said he’d shoot up heroin to “get away from his problems.” His addiction got so bad he would shoot ice water into his veins if he had no drugs. Sometimes just the sight of his needle could get him high.

Gallion will tell you from experience that “human beings will sell their souls for drugs even though they know that the drug or some illness contracted because of drug use will very likely kill [them].”

Sandra McCall, Delilah’s mother, is battling her own health issues: complications from childhood diabetes, thyroid issues and other more serious health problems that have her living on borrowed time, but she’s determined. “If it takes my last breath, I will use it to save my daughter,” she vows.

“I’ve done many things I probably shouldn’t have, but I did it for her.” She’s followed her daughter, called the police on her, searched her houses, rooms, and personal affects, and finally had her locked up.

She wishes that parents and families who are living similar experiences would start speaking out and speaking up. She wants the stigma associated with addiction removed: “We’re all in this together.”

She believes that only when families of addicts, former addicts, and those on the front line dealing with the addiction crisis unite that elected officials and others with the power and ability to affect change will sit up and listen.

“I got this crazy idea a couple of years ago to have every town [in Mecklenburg County] shut down for a day. All stores and businesses close for a few hours or a day. Then people would see what drugs can do to an area. There would be no grocery store, no place to buy gas, no shops. That’s what drugs do to a community; they destroy it.” She said she was encouraged by her initial conversations with police and town leaders. “They seemed receptive,” but her personal health issues and problems tied to Delilah’s troubles prevented her from following through.

Drugs tax the resources of every community. Combined spending for Mecklenburg County agencies on the front lines of the drug crisis — the Sheriff’s Office, Piedmont Court Services, the W.W. Moore Juvenile Detention Center in Danville, the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office and Department of Social Services — is expected to increase by more than $500,000 over present-day spending in fiscal year 2018.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Allen Nash estimates that upwards of 90 percent of all cases in the criminal justice system are tied to drug use, possession and distribution. These are not only the cases involving possession of controlled substances, he says, but also crimes where the charges may be for breaking and entering, larceny, shoplifting, possession of stolen property, or even assault. Often, the underlying cause for these crimes is the need to find money to buy drugs or behaviors from being under the influence of drugs.

Between January and March, 442 cases were filed in the Mecklenburg County Circuit Court criminal division. That marked a 12 percent increase over the number of criminal cases filed in the same period in 2018. It is, by far, the largest caseload among counties in the 10th Judicial Circuit which includes Appomattox, Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, Halifax, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg and Prince Edward circuit courts. The next highest caseload is in Halifax County, which had 238 criminal cases filed in the first three months of 2019. Across the circuit, most criminal docket cases involve drug-related crimes.

Sandra Gregory, who heads Mecklenburg County’s Department of Social Services, says her staff, too, is overtaxed by the drug crisis. On average, DSS case workers remove a dozen or more children from homes and parents each week because of danger to the children from drug users or squalid living conditions that occur when parents or caretakers spend their money on drugs instead of essentials such as cleaning products or food. She estimates that 80 percent of the cases that her office handles have drugs involved.

Many case workers put in 12-hour days to handle their current caseload, says Gregory. She says the county DSS office could use 20 more trained caseworkers to reduce to a manageable level the number of cases each staffer oversees, based on the current influx of new cases involving drugs.

There is also a dire need for family members or other adults who can serve as foster parents for children removed from homes where there are drugs.

McCall knows all too well that addiction is not a one-way street. When a person compulsively uses drugs, their behaviors do not exist in a vacuum. The negative behaviors weigh heavily, and often tragically, on their loved ones. “It’s been exceedingly hard to be the mother of an addict,” she says.

McCall worries that too often, she and her ex-husband, Delilah’s father, and his wife have been enablers for Delilah, cleaning up her messes, moving her from home to home, and paying for food, televisions, and clothes.

It’s not only the parents, but every person in an addict’s immediate family or extended family who is affected in some way by an individual’s substance abuse, whether it is financially, physically or psychologically. Delilah’s two younger siblings are mixed in their views of their sister. Her brother does not want Delilah in his life, while her younger sister tries to maintain contact, writing letters and waiting for the day her older sister gets well.

Other consequences that flow from drug abuse — all of which McCall says she and family members experienced with Delilah — include the loss of a relationship as Delilah separated herself from family and friends, facing Delilah’s negative mindset, mistrust, dishonesty, evasiveness, and emotional turmoil, and having to become Delilah’s caretaker as the toxic burden of the drugs brought on a variety of illnesses and disorders, including a mental health disorder that resulted in her being involuntarily committed to a facility.

McCall says she feels that too much time and attention is spent on “finding someone to blame” for the addiction crisis and not enough on treatment. She points to ongoing news reports of lawsuits against drug manufacturers and the families who own those companies as proof. “I live in the real world. I want solutions to problems, not lawsuits,” she says.

She also calls out elected officials for “using the drug crisis for political purposes.” She says they offer no real solution to the problem, and inadequate resources for those on the frontline to battle the crisis.

In October 2017 President Donald Trump deemed the opioid crisis “a national health emergency.” In the 18 months since, studies such as the one conducted by the Bipartisan Policy Center concluded that there has been too little progress with battling the crisis and that the federal “funding approach lacks long-term vision.”

In 2016, then-Virginia Health Commissioner Marissa Levine deemed the opioid addiction crisis a state public health emergency. Two years later, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam spent several months touring Virginia and discussing the crisis, but never announced plans to dedicate state resources to the health emergency until September 2018 when he said Virginia received nearly $16 million in federal grants to combat opioid abuse. That money, which was federal, not state funds, was distributed to regional Community Service Boards (CSB) across the state that used it to expand programs.

In response, McCall asks: What’s happened to all the money Virginia received for drug treatment in the past two years?

The Southside Community Service Board (SCSB), which covers Brunswick, Halifax and Mecklenburg counties, used their limited funds to create crisis centers inside VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital in South Hill and Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital in South Boston. There, people who are in mental health crisis can receive initial care while longer-term placements are pursued. The centers also open up access to substance abuse counselors on a walk-in basis, and they purchase Narcan for first responders.

In McCall’s view, there was not enough money earmarked to combat the crisis. None was given to law enforcement and too little, if any, went to the Southside Wellness Coalition, which is working with law enforcement, health and social service officials, community members and others on solutions to the drug and opioid crisis.

On Thursday, 5th District Rep. Denver Riggleman, along with Rep. David Trone (D-MD), Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), and Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) introduced a bipartisan bill in Congress to authorize an additional $5 billion in funding for State Opioid Response Grants and Tribal Opioid Response Grants over five years. This bill is only beginning the legislative process. It must be approved by the House and Senate and signed by President Trump before the money will be made available.

While politicians grapple with finding or allocating money for the problem, McCall has a few solutions of her own. First, she said the schools need to reinstitute the DARE program to educate students at an early age about drug use and its negative consequences.

McCall believes the last time DARE was taught in the Mecklenburg County schools was 2013.

The DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program was replaced federally in 2016 by Keepin’ It Real (kiR), a program designed by the U.S. Surgeon General. DARE America, the nonprofit organization that administers the program, says kiR is more effective at reducing rates of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana use and improving discontinuation of use rates. The organization says Keepin’ It Real also leads to more realistic perceptions of peer use, while also improving relationship skills, self-awareness, and responsible decision-making.

McCall wants hospitals, medical examiners and others to stop reporting that the cause of overdose deaths is cardiac arrest. “It’s an overdose and should be listed as such or as cardiac arrest due to overdose.”

Notwithstanding the HIPPA laws that guard patient privacy, McCall believes hospitals and medical clinics should be required to notify law enforcement when a person is being or has been treated for an overdose.

McCall would also like to see legislation focused on funding to increase the number of available treatment facilities. Currently, the nearest inpatient facilities are in Danville, Lynchburg and Williamsburg, and they are either full or too expensive for the addict who often does not have insurance to pay for the stay.

She has not worked out the details of this funding legislation but is aware that last month New York enacted a tax on prescription opioids to cover the cost of treatment and prevention. Ten other states are eyeing similar legislation, according to Kaiser Health News: California, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, Tennessee and Vermont.

McCall would also like the legislature to consider a law that would allow a competent parent or guardian of an addict, regardless of the addict’s age or emancipation status, to request and have a court order treatment for the addict either in addition to or in lieu of jail time. “They’re [the addict] not in their right mind, so how can they be expected to make decisions about whether to go to treatment?” she asks.

She is also working with Jennifer Winstead to create a Nar-Anon support group for families and friends of addicts. Their goal is to offer a “safe” place to meet and talk with others who are facing the same issues. They also hope identify resources family members can use to create a healthy lifestyle for themselves.

On Wednesday, McCall will be back with her daughter again in Mecklenburg County Circuit Court, where she hopes to talk about Delilah and let her know about a letter she sent to the court in February. It reads:

“I am writing this letter on behalf of my daughter Delilah McCall. I’m writing this as my last hope and effort to get my daughter some help. For the last 6 years we have been in a battle to save her from herself and using drugs. As a mother I have seen things I pray no mother would have to. My wonderful smart beautiful child has turned into a druggie someone who can’t live or cope with life without it.

“I was diagnosed a couple of years ago with a fatal illness. I thought that was a disaster but the entire time, knowing my days are numbered, I have had to sit back and watch my 23-year old’s life slip away from us. She’s dying from this stuff. So, in all honesty, she’s the sicker one. I can’t lose my child.

“I have begged for people to help me save her because she doesn’t want to save herself. I’m the bad parent because I can’t let this drug addiction take her from me. I just can’t. This has ruined everything in our relationship. Her ability to light up a room has turned into ‘ugh! I hope she’s not in the same room with us.’ Her smartness, her beauty, her willingness to live and thrive is gone. It’s ruined everything.

“At first it [taking drugs] was her choice. Now it’s turned into she has no choice but to use to get through the day. This is the cruelest reality a mother can face watching this person fade away daily.

“Jail is not ideal. No parent wants that but what do you do when she won’t help herself? This is the only option. At least this way I know where her head lays. I know her roomie won’t be someone having sex with her while she’s high. At least I know she will not be found grey like I have found her, clinging on to life. Jail is the only way I have left to save the daughter that left me 6 years ago and will never completely return.

“So, I beg the Courts and anyone who will listen help me save her because she has no desire to save herself from drugs and this dangerous life.

“I can’t bury my child — she’s supposed to bury me. Please help me, please.”

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