Opioid Task Force Touts Legal Aid as Way Out of Crisis

(AP Photo/Patrick Sison)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Between 1999 and 2017, nearly 400,000 people in the United States died from overdoses involving opioids and by 2017, over 2 million people had been diagnosed with an opioid use disorder. Legal aid may be the key to facilitating recovery for them.

The Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit organization established by Congress to provide legal services to low-income Americans, shared these facts Monday along with 13 recommendations on how to better integrate legal services in communities to confront this epidemic.

The report comes from the group’s Opioid Task Force, which was formed in 2018.

The task force went to communities around the nation to talk about specific, local issues affecting those with opioid use disorders, then turned those conversations into recommendations for law enforcement, medical professionals, legal professional and others.

Some of the recommendations include forming legal aid provider and medical professional partnerships, although mostly the group calls for collaboration between local and legal systems, including medical and community service systems. These collaborations will help address the issues people with opioid addictions have with legal issues, like accessibility to recovery care after a drug arrest or eviction after a drug conviction.

According to John Levi, Legal Services Corporation chairman, the report will be handed to a work group to make sure the recommendations are working and sustainable. He said the idea for forming the task force came from the group’s travels to various legal conferences around the country.

“A few years ago we started to hear about the opioid crisis, before it was a national headline,” Levi said. “This crisis has created and continues to create a civil legal aid crisis for survivors and communities related to issues such as child support and custody, health benefits, domestic violence, elder and child abuse, housing and employment.”

Several members of Congress spoke about the report, including Reps. Susan Brooks of Indiana, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Joseph Kennedy III of Massachusetts and Fred Upton of Michigan.

Brooks said 46 percent of Americans have a close family member or friend who is directly affected by the opioid crisis. She said in her personal life, a friend’s son had recently died due to an overdose from opioids, a reminder the issue is one close to home.

The Republican also noted the court’s role as a “de facto drug treatment” program.

“While we’re changing the way we deal with people with addictions and we say we can’t arrest our way out of this problem, which that is true, I’ve also talked to many, many individuals who say at some point, ‘That arrest saved my life,’” Brooks said.

Upton, a Republican and member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said nearly 60 bills relating to opioid crisis have been passed this year. Upton said the issue was a personal one for him as well, remembering a call he received from a family friend letting him know an acquaintance had died due to an overdose.

“For opioids, it’s personal. I lost a very close family friend who struggled with addiction for most of his life,” Upton said. “It is so addictive and it is so easy to get into this country and we really have to have a much better education effort to try and reverse the dramatic increases that we’ve seen.”

Kennedy said other issues the group is working to address are the secondary ones related to opioid addiction. These issues have raised a variety of questions to those working in legal services, he said.

“Grandparents raising grandkids. What does that mean about legal custody? What does that mean about legal rights?” Kennedy, a Democrat, said. “What does it mean when you’ve got somebody in the public housing whose son or daughter ends up getting convicted for a drug offense? What does that mean if now, all of the sudden, your housing is in jeopardy?”

Fitzpatrick said increased funding for legal services is key to helping fight the opioid crisis. He said the issue is a large and multi-faceted one, involving getting information into schools earlier to make people aware of the effects of opioids.

“Two out of every 10 people that are prescribed opioids become chemically dependent based on their genetic DNA, based on no fault of their own,” Fitzpatrick, a Republican, said. “This is not a moral failing; this is a chemical dependency that a lot of people struggle with.”

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