Program targets chronic inebriates of Fairbanks

Posted: Friday, December 27, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Charged with no crime and not in jail, a man faced a Fairbanks judge with his next 30 days hanging in the balance.

A city attorney was trying to prove the man belonged in alcohol treatment even though the man didn't want to go.

Following a three-hour hearing, the judge ordered the man into treatment.

The decision last month marked the first time in several years a person in Fairbanks has been sent to treatment involuntarily and without being convicted of a crime. But it might not be the last if a group trying to help a population of severe alcoholics in Fairbanks has its way.

The Chronic Inebriate Program Task Group is touting involuntary commitments to alcoholism treatment as one tool in the effort against the long-standing and costly problem of chronic inebriation in the core area of Fairbanks.

The group -- whose members include social service, hospital and local government officials -- says the procedure is an attractive way to help hard-core alcoholics. Many live on the streets, detract from downtown businesses, put a strain on police and other agencies and sometimes freeze to death.

Alaska's involuntary commitment process is often called ''Title 47'' for the section of Alaska statutes where the law is written. It allows spouses, guardians, relatives, health workers or treatment center heads to petition courts to commit people to treatment if they are proven dangers to themselves or others or are incapacitated because of drug or alcohol use.

Within 10 days of a petition being filed, a hearing is held to determine if the person will enter treatment voluntarily or contest the effort. If contested, another hearing is held and the petitioner must present evidence to convince the judge the person belongs in treatment.

The judge can commit a person for up to 30 days. During that time, another petition can be filed, and the person can be committed for an additional treatment period of as long as 180 days.

''It's time consuming to gather all the evidence, to get the doctor to testify,'' said Deputy City Attorney Marilyn Stowell, who represented the petitioner in last month's proceeding. ''Our burden is to show that the person is an alcoholic and that the person is incapacitated by alcohol.''

Stowell and the city attorney's office are working with two case managers who recently started documenting life histories and forming treatment plans for about 45 chronic inebriates considered to be the most frequently contacted by police and other agencies.

The case managers are coordinating their efforts with the chronic inebriates task group.

Case managers plan to use the Title 47 process as needed, said Kate Wood, emergency care coordinator at Ralph Perdue Center and supervisor of the case managers. Wood also is an active member of the chronic inebriates task force.

Involuntary commitment to alcohol treatment has been in Alaska law for three decades.

The provision was created in 1972 as part of the Legislature's adoption of the Uniform Alcoholism and Intoxication Treatment Act, which also established a Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

''Traditionally in this state and in many other states, involuntary commitments grew out of the process of decriminalizing the act of being intoxicated in public,'' said Loren Jones, current division director.

Since the process' inception, Jones said involuntary commitments have been performed with varying success rates in several communities, including Juneau, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Ketchikan.

Those touting more frequent use of Title 47 commitments in Fairbanks point to Juneau as a community that has been successful with the practice.

Cyndie Ford-Purdy, a counselor at Juneau Recovery Hospital, has been involved with several Title 47 commitments in the two years she has worked in Juneau. A recovery hospital representative is usually the petitioner in the process, and cases are forwarded to the city attorney's office.

Most people targeted don't contest petitions.

''Most of the folks that we petition for a 30-day commitment are in pretty bad shape, and they realize they're in bad shape,'' Ford-Purdy said.

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