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Tearful dad testifies in favor of bill to notify families when drug-addicted patients are released

Thomas Berry spoke to the media after testifying in favor of a bill that would require health providers to notify families of patients released early from their court-mandated treatment under the state’s Section 35 law on Wednesday.
Thomas Berry spoke to the media after testifying in favor of a bill that would require health providers to notify families of patients released early from their court-mandated treatment under the state’s Section 35 law on Wednesday.(David L Ryan/Globe Staff)

Thomas Berry thought his son was safe.

Stephen Berry, 20, had been civilly committed to the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center for up to 90 days to get treatment for his opiate addiction. Two weeks later, he was released without notification to his family and suffered a fatal overdose on April 5, 2017.

On Wednesday, Thomas Berry, 52, of Pembroke fought back tears at the State House while testifying in favor of a bill that would require health providers to notify families of patients released early from their court-mandated treatment under the state’s Section 35 law.

Had he known his son was on the street, Berry said, he would have brought him to a facility in Falmouth to continue his treatment, which had been the original plan.

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“My family was fighting hard for his recovery,” an emotional Berry told lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Abuse, and Recovery. “Instead of recovery, he received only a train ticket” and money from his canteen at Bridgewater.

Under state law, addicts can be forced into in-patient treatment under Section 35 — at the request of relatives, police, or medical professionals — if a judge determines the person is at risk of serious harm.

Currently, the superintendent of the treatment facility must notify the judge in writing when a patient is released before the 90-day maximum term. The pending bill, sponsored by state Representative Josh S. Cutler, a Duxbury Democrat, would require that the person who had a patient civilly committed in the first place — often a relative — be notified as well.

Cutler told the committee that the bill would close “a very important gap in the law.”

He said he doesn’t believe his bill would violate federal medical privacy laws because the patient’s civil commitment is publicly adjudicated in the courts, and the bill would merely require notification of release to the relative who initially sought the commitment.

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Cutler was joined by Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz, who also testified in favor of the bill. He said his office works daily to punish drug traffickers and help addicts get treatment.

“But every day, families wage their own less public and much more personal battles against addiction,” Cruz said. “The least we can do now is to show those people, who know their loved ones best, that they matter enough to notify them when their loved one is released.”

It’s unlikely that lawmakers will take significant action on the bill before the current legislative session ends.

But Representative Denise C. Garlick, the House chair of the committee, assured Berry that the proposal would be a priority for lawmakers.

Noting the scourge of opiate addiction that continues to ravage the state, Garlick said, “We have a great deal of work to do.”


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com.