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Anchorage center to commit alcoholics for detox

Police: Alcohol caused or contributed to four of eight homeless deaths this spring, summer

Posted: Tuesday, August 04, 2009

ANCHORAGE - A new specialized treatment unit will open later this month in Anchorage to accept alcoholics involuntarily committed to a detoxification program.

The unit is an attempt to intervene with street alcoholics who cannot make good choices for themselves, Robert Heffle, director of the Salvation Army's Clitheroe Center, told The Anchorage Daily News in a story published Monday.

"This is not an attempt to incarcerate the chronic inebriate," Heffle said.

Police said alcohol caused or contributed to four of the eight homeless deaths this spring and summer.

The facility plans to start with four beds to help patients get sober. Heffle wants to add six beds where patients can stay for as long as a year if they choose.

The detox unit is a pilot program pushed by state Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage. He said the roughly $1 million the treatment will cost a year could end up saving money in the long run.

"We spend $4 million of Anchorage taxpayer dollars on the 100 most chronic public inebriates," Ellis said. "The status quo isn't working when people are dying on the streets. We've got to try something new."

For a person to be involuntary committed, a family member or doctor first needs to petition, said attorney Ernie Schlereth, who has represented many of those being committed in other programs.

State law requires the person to be an alcoholic who is either incapacitated by drink or who has at least threatened violence and is likely to inflict physical harm unless committed. A medical official examines the person, but a judge makes the final decision.

The involuntary commitment law isn't new, but commitments haven't been happening in Anchorage in recent years because there are a lack of detox beds for them, said Steven King, behavioral health specialist with the Department of Health and Social Services.

A bed needs to be ready and waiting before a person can be committed, he said. Facilities such as Cook Inlet Tribal Council's Ernie Turner Center have medical detox beds for voluntary patients, but waiting lists preclude them from being used for involuntary commitments.

In the first few days of treatment, staff members try establishing relationships with patients to show they can help. The goal is to convince them to volunteer, after they've cleared their heads, to enter longer-term treatment, Heffle said.

Heffle described the facility as semi-secure, meaning patients are urged not to leave but aren't restrained or guarded.

If they do walk, the staff will call police to bring them back. Repeated absconding can lead in rare cases to more severe action, including commitment at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, Schlereth said.



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