Fairbanks group works to implement forced treatment for alcoholics

Posted: Monday, January 12, 2004

FAIRBANKS - A Fairbanks group is turning to the courts to try to force alcoholics into treatment as part of an effort to reduce the city's population of chronic inebriates.

A group of social service and legal professionals began working about a year ago to revive a court process called involuntary commitment.

While there have been some complications, those involved say involuntary commitment can be an effective tool in the community's push to treat its high population of severe alcoholics.

Involuntary commitment is a process outlined in state law that allows spouses, guardians, relatives, health workers or treatment center leaders to petition courts to commit people to treatment if the petitioners can prove the individuals are a danger to themselves or others, or are incapacitated because of drug or alcohol use.

The Chronic Inebriate Program Task Group, whose mission is to move chronic inebriates off the street and into treatment, recruited the city attorney's office to help with the forced treatment effort.

When a city attorney brought the first man to court in late 2002, the Fairbanks court system had not seen a similar case in several years.

Getting court personnel acquainted with involuntary alcohol treatment was one of the biggest challenges, said Marilyn Stowell, a deputy city attorney who has worked as the group's lawyer.

"It was a learning curve," Stowell said. "Now we've become more comfortable with the process."

Stowell said she has brought six people to court for an involuntary commitment. Some of them decided to go into treatment once she filed the petition, while others tried to fight the commitment in court.

To succeed in forcing a person into commitment, Stowell has to prove to a judge that the person is a threat to himself or others by using specific evidence and calling witnesses.

Of the six people for whom a petition was filed, a judge issued three orders for an initial 30-day involuntary commitment.

"We've had some successes," Stowell said.

The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority recently donated money to Alaska Legal Services to help represent petitioners who want to commit people to treatment, Stowell said.

Don Dapcevich, who used the involuntary alcohol treatment process as a program manager in Juneau, came to Fairbanks to train court personnel, police officers, clinic workers and others.

"From the outside looking in, Fairbanks has done a remarkable job in pulling all the players together," said Dapcevich, who called the community's cooperation a model for the rest of the state.

However, the group should be cautious in deciding whom to file petitions for treatment against, Dapcevich said.

"The greatest challenge is obviously that, in essence, you're taking away their civil liberties when you take away their freedom," he said. "And it's something that cannot be done lightly."

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