Loss of Child to Addiction Moves Law Professor to Battle for Change

This blog was authored by Professor Lauren Rousseau and originally posted November 30, 2015.

Lauren Rousseau 1

In April 2012, I lost someone I loved due to heroin addiction. He was a kid – only 19 years old – and I was his legal guardian. We had spent the better part of the previous year battling his disease. He had gone through part of an intensive outpatient program, but had been kicked out for using. He had done inpatient treatment twice, relapsing within 48 hours of release each time. And exactly one week after his last inpatient treatment, with his addiction once again in full force, the disease took him to the place where he lost his life. His death broke my heart, and the hearts of his family and friends. We will never be the same.

The federal Center for Disease Control recently reported that more than 120 people die of drug overdose in this country every day. Heroin overdose deaths, in particular, have quadrupled in the past 10 years, and Michigan ranks 18th in the nation in the number of overdose deaths. These statistics don’t begin to capture the damage that addiction is inflicting upon our nation, nor do they capture the deaths that are a more indirect result of this disease – the murders, car accidents, deaths due to liver disease, heart failure, and other health complications that are directly related to drug and alcohol use. It is estimated that over 85 million Americans have been impacted by addiction, either because they are personally struggling with the disease or because they love someone who has lived with or died from it. Everyone knows someone.

Addiction panel-1

Panelists discuss improving addiction recovery support within the criminal justice and educational systems. Pictured (left – right) are Matt Statman, director of the University of Michigan Collegiate Recovery Program; Bill McDermott, personal trainer at One on One Athletic Club in Ann Arbor; Carly Keyes, student at the University of Michigan; Ariel Britt, a student in University of Michigan’s graduate school of Social Work; and Alvon Lathan, director of the Inmate Mentoring Program at the Genesee County Jail. All five of the panelists are in long term recovery from addiction.

On Nov. 12, WMU-Cooley hosted an all-day conference entitled “Paradigm Shift: Changing Law and Education to Better Support Addiction Recovery.” I was a principal organizer of the conference, together with two friends of mine from outside of legal academia: Scott Masi, referral specialist and outreach coordinator for Brighton Center for Recovery; and Ivana Grahovac, executive director of Transforming Youth Recovery, which is based in California.

Our morning speakers focused their remarks on the extent of the addiction problem in the United States (presented by Oakland County Medical Examiner Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic and U.S. District Attorney Patrick Corbett), as well as the manner in which our criminal justice system deals with addiction (presented by Craig DeRoche, former Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives and Executive Director of the Justice Fellowship; and Michael Johnson, nationally recognized lecturer, trainer and counselor on addictions). In the afternoon, the conference focused on the importance of recovery support in our high schools and colleges. In total, we had eight primary speakers, as well as an hour-long panel discussion with five people in long-term recovery from substance use disorder. Each member of our “recovery panel” had experienced criminal consequences while in active addiction, and three of them had been or currently are participants in a collegiate recovery program. One of those panelists, Matt Statman, is currently the Director of the University of Michigan’s Collegiate Recovery Program.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 25 percent of the world’s prison population but only 5 percent of the global population. In 2013, there were 2,220,300 people incarcerated in our federal, state, and local prisons, or one in every 110 adults. Over 50 percent of those incarcerated in our federal prisons are there due to drug-related offenses. Yet for the most part, our jails and prisons do not offer any kind of treatment for addiction.

Historically, our country has viewed addiction as a moral failing warranting criminal sanctions, rather than as a health issue requiring treatment. This is true despite the fact that the medical community has recognized drug addiction as a brain disease since at least the 1970s. In addition to the lack of treatment while a person is in prison, the criminal record that a person carries with him upon release from prison can create barriers to recovery from this disease. Most drug possession and distribution crimes are categorized as felonies, and a felony record can prevent a person from receiving public assistance benefits, employment, and housing, all of which are often necessary to stabilize recovery. During the conference, Michael Johnson expounded on the “Reentry Trap” encountered by people in early recovery who have been released from prison, while Judge Linda Davis of the 41B Michigan District Court discussed the role of sobriety courts in moving the criminal justice system towards an addiction treatment paradigm, and away from punishment and prison.

Ivana Grahovac and Kristen Johnson, executive director of the Association of Recovery Schools, discussed the importance of recovery support in our education systems. Most people struggling with substance use disorders began using well before the age of 18, and many are in treatment for the first time before that age. Our speakers noted that it is almost impossible for young people to maintain recovery if they go back to their normal high school or college with no recovery support, since drinking and drugging so often are a part of the culture. Recovery high schools and collegiate recovery programs are essential to increasing the likelihood of recovery success for our youth.

Paradigm shift

Over 160 people attended the Paradigm Shift: Changing Law and Education to Better Support Addiction Recovery event.

Well over 160 people attended the conference, and a large number of sponsors set up tables offering information regarding addiction treatment, recovery, and substance abuse prevention. Several WMU-Cooley law students assisted with registration, and others attended the conference, along with members of the legal community, the behavioral health and addiction treatment communities, the recovery community, and members of the general public. All of the feedback that we received from conference attendees was positive. I heard statements such as, “the speakers were amazing” and “this was the best conference I’ve attended all year.” The students who attended likewise enjoyed the experience.

Brian Calley

Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley provided the keynote during the conference.

We were fortunate to have Michigan Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley deliver the closing remarks, during which he revealed his own personal experience with addiction in a family member. Lt. Gov. Calley pledged his support for “shifting the addiction paradigm” – from the false perception of “moral failing” warranting criminal sanctions, to the more constructive and accurate perception of the condition as a disease warranting treatment and compassion.

Many thanks to WMU-Cooley for being on the forefront in recognizing the public health crisis that addiction presents in our state, and providing a conference designed to educate our community regarding the disease, our current approach to it, and the need for system reform.

Professor Lauren Rousseau teaches Civil Procedure I and II at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. She is also the Chair of the school’s Civil Procedure, Evidence & Practice Skills Department, and has served as Assistant Dean at the Auburn Hills and Ann Arbor campuses. She serves on the Board of Directors of several nonprofit organizations including Home of New Vision, an addiction treatment nonprofit corporation in Washtenaw County; the Alliance of Coalitions for Healthy Communities (ACHC), which oversees 16 coalitions in Oakland County focused on substance abuse and prevention, as well as the Oakland County chapters of Families Against Narcotics; and Access to Bankruptcy Court, a nonprofit corporation providing pro bono bankruptcy services to indigent clients.

Brig. Gen. Michael C.H. McDaniel Bio