Lawmaker wants reforms to improve civil commitments for addicts


Mike Beaudet

Producer Kevin Rothstein

FOX UNDERCOVER ( -- A state lawmaker spearheading the Legislature’s response to the state’s opiate abuse epidemic wants judges to receive more training in addiction to improve the court’s response to civil commitments –- often the tactic of last resort for loved ones of addicts.

“I think judges need addiction training just to understand the issue because a lot of what happens when people come before judges, whether it's for a section 35 or it's for a criminal act that is related to an addiction, I think sometimes the understanding of addiction is not there and so it would be helpful for judges to have that understanding,” said state Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster.

Flanagan is chair of the Senate Special Committee on Drug Abuse and Treatment Options, which held hearings across the state. Her committee helped lead the Senate to passing a bill last week that would reduce the number of people forced to turn to the state for the civil commitments, known as section 35 commitments for the section of the Massachusetts General Law covering them.

“Every day that I have been doing this over the course of this year, I know that someone's dying. And I know that I need to work harder so that we don't have anyone else dying, but at the same time I can't save everybody. But the way the bill is presented and the way that we can pass this, we can give somebody an opportunity to get help if they want and we can provide tools for loved ones to get the people that they care about the help that they need,” she said.

Pauline MacDougall of Charlestown can attest to how difficult it can be to get the help needed. She pleaded with a judge in 2012 to commit her son Clinton, who she said had overdosed several times and was still using.

The day of the commitment hearing, she said Clinton was showing signs of having taken heroin.

“I don't understand why a judge and a doctor could stand there and say no there's really not enough evidence to commit him. Not enough evidence? He's falling over in his chair. He's nodding out,” she told FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet.

The judge released Clinton, deciding there wasn't the likelihood of serious harm to himself or others. Seven weeks later, he died from an overdose.

“Since my son passed away how many other mothers have gone before them and begged for their children's lives to be saved?” MacDougall asked. “How many have they rejected? This is why I'm speaking out.”

In 2012, judges committed more than 5,000 drug and alcohol addicts. But that year, 7,068 applied, meaning 1,998 were turned away.

Those numbers obtained by FOX Undercover are not surprising to Joanne Peterson, founder of Learn to Cope, a support group for families of addicts.

“My guess is that they don't understand the immediate danger that this addiction will bring on in a family and to their loved one. The fact that they're addicted to this drug alone is a deadly situation,” she said on the FOX 25 Morning News.

That lack of understanding, Peterson said, is unfortunate because the courts are the last resort for families of addicts.

“Now we're seeing because this epidemic has grown so huge that they're being let out early or being denied and sadly many people die when they're denied,” she said.

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