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Good vs Bad Isn’t Always So Clear

The case of a homeless man’s right to money that was raised to help him via a GoFundMe page set up by a seemingly well-intentioned couple is a hot topic right now. Many issues exist including what responsibility GoFundMe has, what right the intended recipient has, and whether or not previous bad decisions including drug use should determine someone getting what is (or may be) rightfully theirs.

The gist of the story is this: a homeless Marine veteran named Johnny Bobbitt helped a stranded motorist named Kate McClure when she ran out of gas late one night last year. Johnny walked the few blocks to buy Kate gas with his last $20. She didn’t have the money to repay him then, but she later sought him out to pay him back and also brought him food, water and clothes. Kate then set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to help Johnny. They appeared on shows like “Good Morning America” and eventually, with the help of Kate’s boyfriend Mark D’Amico, raised $400,000 from more than 14,000 people.

This is where a good deed gets complicated. Kate and Mark controlled the GoFundMe page (and thus the proceeds) and apparently decided to withhold the money from Johnny – and maybe even use a little for themselves according to some reports – until he got a job and quit using drugs. Mark even remarked to Fox News that “Giving him all that money, it’s never going to happen. I’ll burn it in front of him.” He added that giving an “addict” the money would be like “giving him a loaded gun.”

To be fair, Johnny admitted that the couple once gave him $25,000 from the fund and he gave some to relatives and friends, and spent some on drugs. And it’s still a “he said / she said” with how much money is left and who spent what, details that will be worked out in court.

The question though is this: is it fair (or even legal) to withhold what has been intended for one person merely because they “might” make a bad decision with it? Did the couple make a “good” decision by allegedly purchasing a luxury car and a vacation with the money intended for Johnny?

My point is two-fold. First, in my opinion, people who struggle with substance use disorder are not somehow unique in their (in)ability to manage money. People who do not use substances mismanage their money all the time and rack up credit card debt beyond what they’ll ever be able to pay back. And Johnny did say he gave some of the money to his family and friends, something we might all agree is a “good” and noble thing. On its own, one’s ability to manage money, vastly dependent on another’s perception, is not reason enough to keep what is not yours. Should Johnny be struggling with addiction, the money could be spent on treatment, a sober living environment, or even an interventionist to encourage him get the help he needs, not on cars and vacations.

Second, good people can make bad choices. This seems to apply on both sides here. If Johnny spent some of the money to buy drugs, this choice should not outright exclude him from a right to the rest of the money. And I want to believe that Kate and Mark were well-intentioned and really did want to make a difference in someone’s life. What might be the right thing for them to do now is take responsibility for anything they did spend, own up to it and make it right by returning or donating it.

This idea of good people making bad decisions strikes a chord with me as it should you. I would venture to say that there are many professionals in our addiction and mental health treatment community who are good people with good intentions, with years of experience genuinely helping individuals and families. But people make mistakes. Perhaps it was naïveté or ignorance, but I want to believe that many of the grievances that have occurred in our field are not the result of “bad people” wanting to capitalize off others’ pain. We’re a young industry, really, and it’s easy to have good intentions and make a mistake. I’m not referring to the outright dangerous misbehavior of profiting off of urine drug screens or buying patients, using up all of their medical benefits, then tossing them out on the street. But there are smaller errors that our colleagues have made that we could stand to forgive now that we’re all getting on the same page of what’s okay and what’s not for our field. We give our clients second chances all the time, can’t we afford to do the same for each other?

For now, in the case of Johnny, Kate and Mark, a New Jersey judge has ordered the couple to transfer the GoFundMe money into an escrow account and hire an accountant to review financial records within 10 days. The money will be transferred to an account controlled by Johnny’s lawyers but can’t be used until the judge determines how it will be managed. Stay tuned.

My hope is that one of us – the “good” people – can help Johnny at least get the treatment he needs.

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