The death of Penny LeGate’s daughter from a heroin overdose in 2012 was once impossible for the former KIRO-TV anchor to discuss. Now her story makes a powerful point, in a PBS documentary and on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
There was a time when Penny LeGate couldn’t bear to hear her own daughter’s name.
And yet, there she was last week, glued to her computer screen, watching as Sen. Patty Murray stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate and cited LeGate’s girl, Marah Williams — and her death at 19 from a heroin overdose in 2012 — in urging the passage of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act.
The legislation, if passed, would tackle prescription-drug abuse and heroin addiction by cutting down the “inappropriate” use of pain medication that leads to addiction. It also would make it easier for people to safely dispose of medication and would give police access to naloxone, which can counteract the effects of an overdose.
Last month, Marah’s story was included in the Frontline documentary “Chasing Heroin” on PBS. The two-hour piece examines America’s heroin crisis by telling the stories of addicts and by exploring shifts in U.S. drug policy, including the effects of treating addiction as a public-health issue instead of a crime.
And last Tuesday, LeGate was named to a new, 32-member King County task force charged with finding ways to expand treatment for heroin addiction, which county officials blame for the current homeless crisis here.
It’s a long way from four years ago, when LeGate found her daughter, gone, in the basement of their home. She retreated, as anyone would, and when we met for breakfast not long after Marah’s death, LeGate removed her sunglasses and gave me a shock. The bright-blue eyes of the former KIRO-TV anchor were ringed in red and dark circles. She spoke in a near-whisper.
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But grief can fuel a new kind of purpose and energy. LeGate founded The Marah Project, which provides at-risk teens paid internships in nonprofit community service organizations.
And now, as the city, county and nation are overwhelmed by a new and furious wave of heroin use, LeGate feels strangely, sadly validated.
“This can happen to anyone,” she said. “And a lot of people have been unwilling to talk about it because they don’t want to be judged as horrible parents. I tell them to come out of the shadows because hiding the disease, whether it’s yourself or someone you love, allows people to die.”
At the news conference announcing the formation of the task force, King County Executive Dow Constantine reeled off the stats: In 2014, heroin-overdose deaths in King County totaled 156, the most in 20 years. More people now enter detox for heroin than alcohol. And among the homeless, overdoses are the leading cause of death.
LeGate isn’t surprised. She knows the hold heroin can have on people who seem to have so much else in their lives: families, talent, love.
“When I took up the mantle of this heroin problem, people couldn’t believe it could be in their schools, in their homes,” LeGate said. “Nobody was paying attention.
“It’s big. It’s everywhere,” she said. “And I feel good that the momentum is there and we are finally waking up and facing this problem that is not going to go away.”
Now she is proud to hear Marah’s name. On TV. On the Senate floor.
It’s a far cry from the days when her daughter was struggling with addiction, and LeGate didn’t know what to do, and couldn’t bear to tell a soul. Or the days after Marah died, when LeGate hid behind sunglasses, and could barely speak.
“Marah’s story and her legacy, if there is one, is living,” LeGate said. “ And the story is being repeated. And it’s a powerful story.
“I believe Marah is helping people, even when she’s gone.”