Mass. Lawmakers Review Closure Of Drug Abuse Center

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Brockton District Court has one of the highest number of cases involving mental health in Massachusetts. That includes cases where someone asks a judge to involuntarily commit a loved one for substance abuse treatment.

It's called having someone "sectioned" or "section 35-ed" — named after the state law that allows civil commitments for those who won't get treatment on their own. It happens as often as eight times a day in Brockton, when a judge must ask a state psychologist for an emergency recommendation.

One option for judges is to send a person into treatment for 30 days. For the men and women not considered too dangerous to themselves or others, the court can send them into a Department of Public Health facility or to private treatment.

But for men whose loved ones ask the court to civilly commit them to a secure facility, there is only one place to go: the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center, or MASAC, in Bridgewater.

Retired Brockton District Court Judge David Nagel said that, in his two decades on the bench, the cases involving these families were among the most difficult.

"When you see them come in or read the affidavits and look at the absolute devastation on their faces when they tell you what is going on with their brother, sister, child," Nagel said. "They look at you and say, 'You've got to do something.' "

Most of the time, Judge Nagel would send these men to MASAC. It's an 100-bed lock-down facility in the Bridgewater Correctional complex, run by the Department of Correction. It's protected by barbed wire and fencing, and guarded by correction officers.

But it's not a prison and those sent there are not necessarily facing any criminal charges. Correction officials say that because of budget cuts they can no longer afford the roughly $6 million a year it costs to run MASAC, so the center will close Nov. 6.

Judge Nagel said that essentially means state law cannot be followed.

"This is gonna create chaos, I think," Nagel said. "It's everybody's responsibility to follow the law and what is mandated by that statute — and that statute is very clear: You must serve and help these people. It's up to the legislative and executive branch to make sure that it's adequately funded."

A Department of Corrections spokeswoman said most other states don't have similar Correction-run detox facilities, and existing public health treatment centers will be able to accommodate the men who would have gone to MASAC. She issued a statement saying Correction is working collaboratively with the Departments of Public Safety and Health on a backup plan for once the center closes.

But DPH is already warning that it can't help. In a letter to Correction officials this month, Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach said that although his department opened a new treatment center for men in January, it's already full. And he said his agency cannot absorb the estimated 50 extra addicts who would need services each month.

"I understand budget cuts. I understand that there's, you know, an economic crisis," said Joanne Peterson, who runs the support group Learn To Cope, for addicts' families. She had her son sectioned, twice. "But they shouldn't just close a place without a back-up plan."

"No one can prevent what an opiate addict will do to get their next fix," Peterson said. "They're going to be robbing, stealing, overdosing and dying."

Last year, more than 2,500 men were treated at MASAC. Among them was 26-year-old David Gonzalez of Taunton, who has been addicted to heroin and cocaine since he was 15. But Gonzalez said he's been drug free since he left MASAC.

"It's kinda like a prison setting, but you adjust to it," Gonzalez said. "There's hundreds of people just like yourself there, you know, living the same lifestyle. Ages range from 18 years old to — I think the oldest person I was ever in there with was — 76 years old. I was sectioned in there with a guy that was an eye surgeon. You can kinda see what's gonna happen if you keep using — if you keep living the lifestyle that I was living, I knew that I was going to end up either going to prison for a long time or end up dead."

That's what worries state Sen. Steven Tolman.

"We're losing citizens in Massachusetts at a rate of 42 to 1 to what we're losing at war on our streets with overdosing on heroin and Oxycontin," said Tolman, who chairs the state commission on those drugs. He's among those scheduled to testify at a State House hearing Thursday on MASAC's proposed closure.

"We do not have the proper infrastructure to treat this level of addiction and yet one of the key components is MASAC," Tolman said. "Yet, somehow, somebody in this administration thinks we should close it. Frankly its an outrage."

Correction officials have already postponed MASAC's scheduled closing once. Sen. Tolman wants the governor to put it off for at least another 90 days until there is an alternative place for judges to send the men they order into treatment.

This program aired on September 30, 2009.

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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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