Forum airs views on Section 35 law

  • Jody Kasper, Northampton’s chief of police, talks about the Hampshire HOPE forum on Section 35 issues in Hadley, Friday, July 12, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jill Shanahan, assistant director for drug user health at Tapestry Health, talks with James Arana, an independent consultant, at the Hampshire HOPE coalition forum on Section 35 issues Hadley, Friday, July 12, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi speaks at a forum on the controversial state law known as Section 35. The event took place on July 12, 2019, and was organized by Hampshire HOPE. STAFF PHOTO/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Staff Writer
Published: 7/12/2019 5:34:02 PM
Modified: 7/12/2019 5:33:50 PM

HADLEY — The Hadley Farms Meeting House was silent Friday morning when Amie Hyson stepped to the front of the room to read her poem “Dear America.”

“Dear Big Pharma,” she began. “I want to know how you can sleep at night. Does the weight of your fat pockets pull you into complacent slumber?”

Hyson’s reading about addiction was one of several by women from the program Voices from Inside, which opened a forum on the controversial state law known as Section 35. The law allows for the court-ordered commitment of someone dealing with a substance use disorder if that person poses a substantial risk to themselves or others.

Hampshire HOPE, the county’s opioid prevention coalition, put on the event, which brought together public health experts, advocates, law enforcement officials, medical professionals, people who have experienced substance use disorders and others to discuss Section 35. 

“There’s a lot of different opinions on Section 35, different experiences,” said Michael Richardson, the Section 35 coordinator at the state’s Department of Public Health. “For me to get out and hear all those experiences is important.”

“I think this grounds our work,” Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper told the Gazette.

The forum came after a state commission recently released its recommendations for reforming the controversial law. Among those recommendations was prohibiting the state from sending those committed under Section 35 to jails and prisons for treatment.

Massachusetts is the only state to send civilly committed men to correctional facilities for involuntary treatment when they haven't committed a crime. Of the state’s three Section 35 facilities for men, only one is operated by the Department of Public Health.

One of the other facilities is at the Hampden County jail in Ludlow. A wing of that jail was opened last year for a Section 35 treatment center for men — the first to open in the western part of the state. There are no Section 35 facilities for women in western Massachusetts. 

Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi, who opened the Ludlow facility, was one of several panelists to speak at the event. He said it was the death of a patient in 2017, who was riding with police from western Massachusetts to one of the far-off Section 35 centers in the eastern part of the state, that prompted him to open the facility.

Cocchi criticized the state commission’s recommendation to move Section 35 facilities out of jails and prisons. He said that his program is effective.

“The bricks and mortar really doesn’t matter,” Cocchi said, adding that what is important is the services a person is given when they leave treatment — a moment when their risk of fatal overdose is much higher. “It’s that warm, soft handoff back to the community.”

Following Cocchi’s presentation, two panelists presented the perspectives of those who have petitioned for a loved one to be “sectioned,” as it is often called, and of those who have themselves been sectioned.

“For Section 35 petitioners, this is a critical emergency medical intervention,” said Peter Babineau of the peer-led support network Learn to Cope. He added that loved ones take the step of petitioning for Section 35 as a last resort. “This is an attempt to save a life and protect those around us.”

Babineau, who presented the perspectives he had collected from former Section 35 petitioners, said those petitioners identified plenty of flaws in the system. Among them: some judges are respectful, whereas others can seem like they are scolding those before them; overdose training should be given to those leaving treatment, and care could be more compassionate throughout the process.

“It is always discouraging to hear from folks that, while they hear they are patients, they are treated as prisoners,” he said.

But there are stories of victory and redemption to come out of Section 35, Babineau said. He told the story of somebody he called “Johnny,” who had overdosed twice in 24 hours when his mother decided to petition for Section 35. Johnny was mad, Babineau said, but his mother was convinced that if he wasn’t sectioned, his death was inevitable.

“As of this week, Johnny was nine months in his recovery process,” Babineau said. “Johnny has returned to their lives. He has returned to his life.”

Next to speak was Jill Shanahan, assistant director for drug user health with Tapestry Health. She gave the perspectives of nine people she had interviewed who had themselves been committed to a treatment facility under Section 35.

When those people learned that they were being sectioned, there were lots of mixed emotions, Shanahan said. Though many were upset — feelings that weren’t helped by their withdrawal symptoms — some did feel grateful after the fact that someone had cared enough to petition the court to get them into treatment.

The experience of being handcuffed and shackled was traumatic for people, Shanahan said. And a big theme of their experiences was that being in Section 35 treatment felt like being incarcerated.

“They mentioned that it’s way too much like jail,” Shanahan said.

For some, the experience was a waste because they were not ready for treatment, she said. But others said the system had worked for them.

Among the recommendations people who have been sectioned had for the forum to consider were to acknowledge that some people will continue to use drugs; to offer a more comprehensive resource list to those leaving treatment, including safe drug use and Narcan training while in treatment; to provide better support for those transitioning out of treatment; and to let those in the program smoke cigarettes.

Speaking after the event, Shanahan said it is important for people to hear those kinds of perspectives, which they don’t usually have the opportunity to hear so candidly.

“I think that’s how you create change,” she said. “Everybody needs feedback.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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