NBC 10 I-Team: Family says life-saving option not available in Rhode Island

A Rhode Island family is speaking out to the NBC 10 I-Team, just days after losing their 29-year-old son to an opiate overdose. The family believes there’s an option that may have saved his life, but Rhode Island law wouldn’t allow it. (MGN)

A Rhode Island family is speaking out to the NBC 10 I-Team, just days after losing their 29-year-old son to an opiate overdose. The family believes there’s an option that may have saved his life, but Rhode Island law wouldn’t allow it.

They asked NBC 10 not to identify them to protect their privacy following their son’s death inside their home the night before Mother’s Day.

"I think there's too many loopholes that people are falling through. Too many cracks. People are dying. Kids are dying,” said the young man’s father.

The young man’s father reached out to the I-Team just over a month ago, feeling helpless as his adult son battled heroin addiction. Two days before the family’s scheduled interview with NBC 10, their son died inside their home. Despite their grief, the family asked NBC 10 go to forward with the story, hoping to help save other lives.

The 29-year-old had overdosed at least five times in the months before his death, but was relived with the opiate antidote Naloxone each time. Sometimes his parents gave it to him, while other times Richmond Police Officers or EMTs helped save him. He was also hospitalized for overdoses on multiple occasions, but released immediately after he was in stable condition, his parents said.

But once the immediate emergency was over, the family felt helpless.

"Because he is over 18, no one can make him do anything,” his father said. “He had to have wanted to save himself. The problem is, the addiction is so strong mentally, they're not able to make that decision for themselves."

Thirty-seven states allow some form of what’s known as involuntary commitment—forcing a loved one into rehab for a limited time period. In Massachusetts, parents can appear in court and ask a judge to commit an adult child to treatment, if there’s a “likelihood of serious harm,” according to state law.

The Richmond family felt they could prove that. But in Rhode Island, involuntary commitment is only legal for alcoholism, not for substance abuse.

Just days before his death, the young man talked with his father about a desire to get help.

“He was very positive, twice this past week, about getting a new job, about moving on, about not using anymore,” his father said. “We gave each other a great big hug, and I thought it was over. Saturday, I found him unresponsive in the basement, and it was too late."

Too late, because three doses of Naloxone administered by his parents and Richmond Police couldn’t bring him back.

"We begged the doctors. We begged the hospital,” his father said of the family’s efforts to force their son into treatment.

A family doctor explained that while involuntary commitment was allowed in Rhode Island for alcoholics or for people suffering from other mental health conditions, it wasn’t allowed for those battling substance abuse.

"I strongly believe we would have saved my son if we had that option,” his father said.

About eight thousand people were involuntarily committed in Massachusetts last year, sent to state rehab facilities or sometimes held in jail until a bed becomes available. Governor Charlie Baker introduced a bill to expand the practice so that families could request a 72-hour hold without first going to court, which could be helpful when an overdose happens overnight or on weekends. That bill is now making its way through the Massachusetts legislature. New Hampshire is also considering legislation that would make involuntary commitment legal in that state.

But the practice has some advocates raising red flags.

“It's a very controversial issue right now,” said Jonathan Goyer of Anchor Recovery Center in Pawtucket.

Goyer is in recovery from opiate addiction and lost both his father and brother to the disease. He now works fulltime to help other people battling addiction.

"Having lost a father and brother to this disease, I fully do understand what it's like to want somebody to get help,” he said.

But despite that, he doesn’t feel involuntary commitments are the answer.

"I think people have their own process. People are ready when they're ready,” Goyer said of addiction recovery. “That's not a process that can be pushed upon them by friends or by family."

Even if involuntary commitment for substance abuse became legal in Rhode Island, there simply aren’t enough treatment bed available, Goyer said.

"Where would we put them? Where would we involuntarily commit them to?” he asked. “The waiting list for residential treatment right now...is about a three-week waiting list."

Even those who want to get help often find themselves facing a shortage of beds and have nowhere to go.

"I think we have a lot of other work to do in the State of Rhode Island before we look at [involuntary commitments],” he said. “Oftentimes people that want help have to go the extra mile to get it."

But after losing his son, the father who reached out to NBC 10 believes Rhode Island families should be able to step in to try to save a loved one’s life.

"We could have saved my son, if that was the case,” he said.

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