State's Limited Drug Treatment for Women Mirrors Problem in Nation

Mandatory-commitment laws are taking form of forced incarceration. MASSACHUSETTS

SUSAN HINCKLEY still has nightmares about the time she was sent to a Massachusetts prison without ever committing a crime. Struggling with family problems, she became intoxicated one evening and her condition was reported to the authorities by a relative. Instead of being sent to a treatment facility where she could be helped, she was handcuffed, strip-searched, and put in a prison cell.

That was almost four years ago in 1987. But Ms. Hinckley, who has since moved to California, says those eight awful days she spent in the Framingham, Mass., women's prison still haunt her.

``They put me in a 8-foot by 6-foot cage with a woman who had murdered a disabled boy,'' she says. ``That [experience] destroyed my life.''

``If I had hurt someone or shot someone or robbed someone or whatever, then the punishment would have fit the crime. But there was [no crime].''

According to Massachusetts law, a judge can send alcoholics who pose a threat to themselves or others to a treatment facility for 30 days. While bed space in alcohol-treatment facilities for women has been limited in Massachusetts, the state's program for men offers more bed space and services. Women sent to the Framingham prison must wait there until bed space in a regular detoxification program is available. Occasionally they are locked up with regular criminals.

Since Hinckley's experience, however, the state has made strides in improving women's services. Much of the progress is due to a lawsuit Hinckley filed against the state in 1988, challenging the constitutionality of sending women alcoholics to prison. A court settlement was reached last month where the state promised to offer judges more treatment-program options as well as provide more beds for women in detoxification programs. A bill pending in the state legislature would actually prohibit judges from sending women alcoholics to prison under the mandatory-commitment statute.

Massachusetts' problem in providing drug treatment for women is not unique. All over the country, women alcoholics and substance abusers are getting limited public treatment services compared with men, say substance-abuse experts.

The problem is particularly severe for women who are forcibly committed to public treatment facilities. Thirty-three states besides Massachusetts - including California, Florida, Minnesota, and New York - have such ``mandatory commitment'' laws. Many of the laws were created to force the increasing number of pregnant women addicts to get treatment, says Christine Lubinski, director of public policy at the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. But states don't always provide the right kind of services for women substance abusers who have special needs if they are pregnant, have children, or are victims of sexual abuse.

``Mandatory commitment, although in some cases well conceived in trying to help people ... ends up taking the form of forced incarceration with very minimal services,'' Ms. Lubinski says.

Pregnant women addicts or those with children find it particularly difficult to get treatment. Many programs turn pregnant women away because of liability concerns. Some women will not seek treatment for fear their children will be taken away or they will be charged with child abuse.

Fifty to 60 women in the country have been criminally charged for taking drugs during pregnancy, while two women have been convicted for it, says Kary Moss, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. In addition, Florida, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island have amended their legal definitions of child abuse to include drug use during pregnancy.

``If women are afraid ... that the treatment program is going to report them to the child abuse authorities, what is happening is that they won't get treatment,'' says Brenda Underhill, executive director of the Alcoholism Center for Women in Los Angeles. ``The solution of a punitive attitude of `lock her up if she does it,' isn't going to work.''

Lubinski says the problem isn't always money. In 1986, Congress mandated that states allocate 5 percent for women's programs of the federal Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Services block grants. In 1988, that percentage was increased to 10 percent. Despite the extra funding, many states have done little to initiate new services, Lubinski says. Other states, like California and Ohio, have really worked to improve women's programs, she says.

``In California, they called in providers and women advocates and made decisions on how to spend money ... they made priorities for older women and women of color and funded 20 brand new programs,'' she says.

Even Massachusetts has a strong network of drug treatment programs compared with other states, says Norma Finkelstein, director of the Coalition for Addiction, Pregnancy, and Parenting in Cambridge, Mass. The problem with the overburdened mandatory commitment system is the lack of services for women who would voluntarily seek treatment initially but find there is no space available - particularly pregnant women or those with children, Ms. Finkelstein says.

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