Former Hanson Selectman David Soper is fighting for an amendment to the state’s Section 35 involuntary commitment law that he and his family feel can save lives.
It’s too late for his nephew Stephen Berry, but Soper wants to help spare another family pain.
An oxycontin prescription for pain following a dirt bike injury lead to to Stephen Berry’s addiction to opiods and his commitment to a state treatment facility,
“It spirals out of control so fast,” Berry’s father Thomas told television reporters after testifying at a hearing on a bill filed through state Rep. Josh Cutler, D-Duxbury.
“This is a gap in the law that we’ve seen and, unfortunately, it led to a tragedy,” Cutler told Boston’s NBC affiliate last week. “We’re not talking about revealing any medical information, we’re just saying when someone is released, the petitioner — which is usually a loved one — should be notified.”
Plymouth County DA Timothy Cruz supports the bill, for which there was no opposing testimony offered at last week’s public hearing at the State House.
“I strongly support passage of this bill, which would close an important gap in Section 35 commitments and ensure that a family member/petitioner is notified of any release from the program,” Cruz said. “Every day, families in Plymouth County are waging their own battles against addiction, and sharing Stephen Berry’s tragic story and testifying on this bill was an extremely difficult task for Mr. Berry and Mr. Soper. I want to commend them both for their courage and determination in seeing this bill through and hopefully preventing this tragedy from happening to another family.”
Family members provided emotional testimony about the impact of the current shortfall in the law.
“This past year for me and my [family] has involved many meetings with state and local officials all the way up to Chief Justice of criminal courts in Massachusetts,” Soper said in his testimony, a copy of which he provided to the Express. “Our goal is plain and simple: help fix what went wrong with release of my nephew and how he was released from state facility at his most vulnerable point. This is about life and death for those struggling with addiction. As of today, it is against the law to notify a loved one, had my family been notified we feel Steve’s story would have ended much differently.”
Thomas Berry explained addiction runs in his family and all his son needed was “a couple of those puppies” to become addicted. Before long Stephen’s habit was deemed serious enough to have him involuntarily committed to the Bridgewater State Rehabilitation Center on April 3, 2017.
He was supposed to be there for 90 days, but was released after two weeks because he had a pending court date.
Soper said there was no professional guidance offered to his nephew, nor any notification to his family that he was being released.
“His release was based solely on Mass. Health and Human [policy which] does not supply rides to court hearings,” Soper testified at the public hearing. “He was put in a van, ridden to Lakeville Middleboro Commuter Line with train ticket to Brockton where he later called his father Tom. He was also given money in form of a check with a letter from the state saying this check is guaranteed by the state of Massachusetts. That money was placed in that account by his father for extra clothing and food if need during his stay in Bridgewater.”
Stephen bought fentanyl and his family was notified the next day that he had died of an overdose.
“What is strange about him being released, is that the sole reason for his release was that the BSDRC would not provide him transportation to the court hearing on a criminal matter involving his mother and the theft of some items from her home back in December 2016,” Soper testified.
Cruz testified that families making such a difficult decision in an effort to save their loved ones deserve greater peace of mind than the current law provides.
“Tom Berry, Stephen’s dad, did one of the hardest things a parent ever has to do: he civilly committed his son to try to save his life,” Cruz said. “He was released without a hearing in front of the judge who, just two weeks earlier, found that he was an imminent risk to himself.”
He said he was aware of a similar case in Rockland involving a 40-year-old man sectioned by his mother after he had battled substance abuse for 17 years. He was released after 21 days, and died two days after his release.
There were 1,900 overdose deaths in Massachusetts last year, Cruz said. This is down slightly from 2016 which saw 2,100 is way up compared to 2009, 2010, and 2011 when there were only about 600 deaths per year. Plymouth County ranks in the highest category in Massachusetts for opioid overdose death rates per 100,000 people with 147 in 2017.
“Every day in my office, we face an uphill battle to punish the traffickers and dealers of these poisons while identifying and finding treatment solutions for those whose criminality supports their substance use,” Cruz said. “But every day, families wage their own, less public and much more personal battles against addiction. The least we can do is to show those people, who know their loved ones best, that they matter enough to notify them when their loved one is released, in order to be prepared to wage their battle anew.”