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Substance abuse impacts users, families

A grieving David Billy is comforted by his wife Heather Billy as they play some of daughter Kaitlin Billy’s favorite songs during the family’s memorial tribute to her life Sept. 13 on Naples Bay. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Kaitlin Michelle Billy was a vibrant young women who loved music, purchased her own home at age 19 and had a family who loved her. By age 26 she was dead of a fentanyl overdose.

Billy’s family said she experimented with and abused drugs. Her father, Seminole Tribe member David Billy, who is a former police officer for the tribe, admitted her to a residential drug rehabilitation facility in September 2020. When she completed rehab, Billy lived in a halfway house, where she had more freedom and access to her car.

Her father said that on the evening of Aug. 1, 2021, she went out, took some drugs and was found dead in her bed the next morning.

“I got a knock on the door from two of my best friends from [the] Collier County Sheriff’s Office. I was dreading that day. I knew if I didn’t do something this would happen. I did something and it happened anyway,” said David Billy, who was a CCSO police officer for 23 years before joining the Seminole Police Department.

The Billy family honored her memory on Sept. 13 – which would have been her 27th birthday – with a ceremony at sunset on Naples Bay. Family members who attended included Billy’s stepmother Heather Billy, brothers Ian Billy and Tim Jones, her mother Nikki McDaniel and stepfather Greg McDaniel. All met on David Billy’s 24-foot boat for the remembrance.

The trip was both mournful and joyful as they released flying sky lanterns over the bay. They sang “Happy Birthday” while tossing bouquets of flowers into the bay, wept as they listened to some of her favorite songs and laughed while sharing memories. By the end of the memorial, the mood was lifted as the family remembered Kaitlin for who she was, not how she died.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl overdoses in 2020 rose 31% from 2019 for all sexes, ages and races.

“My family isn’t the only one in the tribe who has been through this and everyone knows it,” Billy said. “We tend to put our heads in the sand and don’t pay attention.”

Billy blames easy access to money as a factor in the amount of substance abuse in the tribe.

“People really need to understand what’s at stake; our children’s lives and the future of the tribe,” he said. “If we keep losing tribal members, what’s going to happen next? Is money more important than keeping tribal members alive? The cost is their lives.”

We Do Recover

Charlie Tiger, supervisor of the We Do Recover (WDR) program, is in recovery and is a grieving father who lost two children to drugs about three years ago.

“For a small tribe, this is a big problem because of money,” Tiger said. “We become targets for drug dealers and other addicts. Even with guardianship, they can use their allowance [for drugs]. It’s a matter of getting them into a program and keeping them there. Sometimes that’s impossible.”

WDR helps participants through alcohol, drug and substance abuse recovery by doing community work, such as helping seniors. Tiger said some people join the program when they get tired of not having enough money, watching their health deteriorate and sometimes having their children taken away.

“Our program gets them back on track by putting them to work and keeping them busy,” Tiger said.

The program encourages participants to get their driver’s license, take a food handlers course, life skills courses and remain certified in those skills. To join the program, people must have been sober for 90 days, be in the tribe’s Center for Behavioral Health (CBH) aftercare program and be in counseling. If they relapse, they must start over and be approved by their therapist to get back into the WDR program.

“The program gave me an avenue to stay busy with my job and meetings,” Tiger said. “We need to lead by example.”

Tiger believes parents need to pay attention to their children and be involved in their school. He said if a child loves to do something, parents should encourage and support that. They should also watch who comes into their kids’ lives and who they are interacting with on social media.

“I see a lot of tribal members that I worry about,” he said.

Center for Behavioral Health

Tony Bullington, director of CBH, is in the process of re-envisioning the department by using the power of the tribe’s culture and medicine. He’s been attending community meetings and talking about the Marchman Act, which helps families get family members affected by substance abuse and addiction into treatment through a court process, and the Baker Act, which enables families to provide emergency mental health treatment and temporary detention for those who are impaired by their mental illness and substance abuse issues.

Bullington said CBH aims to spend more time educating the community and families about the latest drugs, such as fentanyl. CBH also gives them drug abuse warning signs to look for and offers Narcan training to show how to administer the lifesaving drug. Narcan is a nasal spray medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose in minutes.

“We’ve been getting a good response,” Bullington said. “We need to do a lot more listening than talking.”

CBH has altered its aftercare program to get patients involved while they are still in residential treatment. Bullington said the result has been more people staying in aftercare, getting a sponsor and going to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. A sponsor has typically been in recovery for more than a year and serves as a mentor and guide to someone else in recovery.

“Tribal members in recovery serve as sponsors,” Bullington said. “We have some really sharp people who are willing to do that. We want to plug clients in to strengthen their recovery and keep them moving in the right direction.”

Bullington has seen a lot of changes in the 22 years he has worked for the tribe. He said the start of prescription drug abuse began in the early 2000s when physicians were encouraged to prescribe narcotic medication for physical therapy and post-surgery pain. It soon became an accepted practice in the medical world.

“That was a major shift in the mindset,” Bullington said. “They gave high powered narcotics no matter the patient’s age. There were pain clinics and pill mills. It was crazy. Over the last three or four years the introduction of fentanyl has been brutal. Dealers are sprinkling it on everything, including cannabis. It’s lethal.”

Bernard Colman, CBH aftercare, reentry and WDR administrator, was formerly involved in the aftercare piece of recovery. Now he spends most of his time helping tribal members re-enter society after an incarceration, most of which are substance abuse related.

“I’m an unofficial liaison and am still very involved in the recovery community,” Colman said. “There is a lot going on here, such as generational trauma. We are trying to break that cycle, but it will take some time for us to affect real change. The pathology in some families runs deep.”

Indian Country issue

The Seminole Tribe isn’t the only tribe affected by the scourge of substance abuse in Indian Country. According to the Indian Health Service (IHS), Native Americans experience higher rates of substance abuse compared to other racial and ethnic groups. IHS identifies it as the most significant and urgent problem facing Native Americans.

The 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health findings include:

• 10% of Native Americans have a substance abuse disorder.

• 20% of young Native Americans (age 18-25) have a substance abuse disorder.
• 4% have an illicit drug use disorder.
• 7.1% have alcohol use disorder.
• nearly 25% report binge drinking in the past month.
• Native Americans are more likely to report drug use in the past month (17.4%) or year (28.5%) than any other ethnic group.

Dealing with grief

With the help of a grieving group, Charlie Tiger said he is starting to feel better three years after losing his children.

“In the meantime, I missed my grandchildren’s lives,” Tiger said. “I didn’t realize I wasn’t paying attention to the rest of my family. I learned not to be in a big rush, just pay attention to life as it is or it’s going to pass me by.”

Meanwhile, David Billy and his family visited the Drug Enforcement Administration Museum in Arlington, Virginia, a few days after the memorial for his daughter. The museum had an exhibit called “Drugs: Costs and Consequences,” which featured portraits of fentanyl overdose victims. Kaitlin Billy is featured in one of the portraits.

“It was overwhelming, the amount of people on the walls,” Billy said. “There must have been between 3,000 and 4,000. There were faces of every race and gender; this drug doesn’t discriminate. It’s heart wrenching. I hated to see Kaitlin’s picture up there, but I’m glad she isn’t forgotten.”

After they left the museum, the Billy family attended a rally on the National Mall to bring awareness to the fentanyl problem. Billy would like to continue to spread that awareness and welcomes tribal members to send photos of their loved ones who were victims of a fentanyl overdose. Photos may be emailed to

For more information about the We Do Recover program, contact Tiger at For more information about the Center for Behavioral Health, contact Bullington at

From left, Tim Jones, David Billy, Nikki McDaniel, Heather Billy and Ian Billy prepare to throw bouquets of flowers in honor of Kaitlin Billy on what would have been her 27th birthday. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Members of David Billy’s family toss sky lanterns in Naples Bay on Sept. 13 to memorialize Kaitlin Billy, who died of a fentanyl overdose. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
A photo of Kaitlin Billy is part of the “Faces of Fentanyl” exhibit at the Drug Enforcement Administration Museum in Arlington, Virginia. (Billy family)
A photo of Kaitlin Billy is part of the “Faces of Fentanyl” exhibit. (Billy family)
A sky lantern is placed on Naples Bay in memory of Kaitlin Billy. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at