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Section 35: Playing Russian Roulette with Involuntary Treatment in Massachusetts

While many states use civil commitment, Massachusetts is believed to be the only state in the union that allows family members to file a Section 35 petition and court-order their Loved One to treatment. More often than not, they are sent to treatment inside jails and prisons — even if they haven’t committed any crimes. Family members who ask for involuntary committal call it “Russian Roulette”.

At its worst, the Section 35 system is something of a nightmare: out of desperation, family members ask for involuntary committal of their Loved Ones with substance use disorder, only to find that their Loved Ones are sent to a jail or a prison, placed in jumpsuits, and threatened with solitary confinement if they displease the administrators.

Stories of this kind are not unusual in Massachusetts, where family members have no say in where their involuntarily-committed children, spouses, or other Loved Ones are sent. The deciding judge could mandate them to a facility with a better reputation, such as the Stonybrook Stabilization and Treatment Center. Or the judge could send them to a facility in Plymouth called the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center (MASAC), where committed individuals are issued prison jumpsuits and former committed individuals tell stories of animosity, dehumanizing treatment, and mistrust.

The State of Massachusetts Health & Social Services website itself explains that Section 35 process is not a good first choice for treatment and further suggests there are many programs that can help family or friends learn more about addiction, the process of recovery, and how to best intervene. “If an individual is willing to enter treatment voluntarily, there are many private and public programs that are available that can provide treatment. If an individual feels they are part of making the decision to enter treatment, they often will be more receptive to it. Outcomes are often better if an individual is motivated and willing to engage in treatment, in the least restrictive environment.”

Read (or listen) to the WBUR story in full by clicking here.


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In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)