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"The Sober Truth" - A Need for More Safe Supports for Women in Recovery

OPINION

By Tom Rue, MA, LMHC, CASAC

A journalist friend, Eva McKend, recently commented online (not in a work capacity) concerning a CBS News "48 Hours" report she viewed entitled The Sober Truth regarding a lawsuit reportedly filed by the parents of Karla Brada Mendez against Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, asking a court to hold AA liable for the murder of their adult daughter by her live-in boyfriend because she met him in the rooms of AA. What standing the parents of a grown woman might claim to sue an association of recovering alcoholics who make it abundantly clear that they are not professionals, but is built on the idea of "one drunk helping another", is unclear.

Clearly a victim of domestic violence, if Karla met the man who would later murder her at church, or in a PTA meeting, would they have asserted a similar claim against those organizations? What was CBS News thinking when they produced this documentary?

Ms. McKend commented that she found it disturbing that women "...are being taken advantage of in AA programs across America. While I'm not ready to further stigmatize the formerly incarcerated as I think that they are separated from so much in our society already, I do think it's important that people are aware that AA might not be the safe space that they thought it was."

Local human rights activist Sandra Cuellar Oxford focused her well informed reply on the need for more therapeutic services both for incarcerated inmates and post-release in the community, concluding by calling me out by name, "What think you, Tom Rue?" So here is what I think. I understand the documentary has generated discussion and self-examination in recovery-oriented circles, so the lawsuit and documentary may have served a constructive purpose by telling the story of a family's traumatic loss. However, many if not most members of AA find themselves understandably reluctant to speak publicly out of respect for the 11th Tradition which includes a commitment to refrain from engaging in public discussion of the fellowship which has helped bring about their recovery.

In an FAQ type pamphlet for newcomers, in response to the question "How can this help me with my drinking problem?", the AA General Services Conference explains the non-professional nature of the fellowship: "We in AA know what it is like to be addicted to alcohol, and to be unable to keep promises made to others and ourselves that we will stop drinking. We are not professional therapists. Our only qualification for helping others to recover from alcoholism is that we have stopped drinking ourselves, but problem drinkers coming to us know that recovery is possible because they see people who have done it."

In a general, however, AA and support groups like it are deeply "therapeutic" in that they help to bring about and maintain critical and lasting behavioral changes which help people to save their own lives. I believe the topics raised by 48 Hours are important and deserve public attention, though I do not believe the producer's portrayal of 12-step programs was either fair or accurate. I believe I can safely express my opinions on this subject, making it clear that I am not speaking on behalf of any agency, organization, or employer other than myself as a clinician.

Writing as a professional mental health and substance abuse counselor in private practice, not associated with any organization or agency, I offered the following comments in response, including advocating for more gender-specific addiction treatment and services and sober supports than currently exist in our community. It is important to note that 12-step fellowships and similar programs are not "therapeutic services" in any professional sense.


"I watched the full 48 Hours episode. Thanks for pointing it out. The focus on AA is misdirected. The deeper issue is domestic violence and abuse of power by men in society. If there were a hashtag for this, it would be #YesAllWomen. The defect is endemic to our whole society. It has nothing to do with AA. This acknowledgment is missing from the video report. Not once in the documentary is the word 'patriarchy' used.

"One damning comment by a friend of the murderer who said he heard knew the victim was being abused and he did nothing other than offer moral support was, 'We don't call the police. We take care of things ourselves.' I know of nothing in AA that supports this sort of enabling and permissive behavior.

"Holding segregated meetings for criminals and non-criminals is simply not workable. AA is not a professional organization. It is a loosely structured network of people who choose to associate with other people who share a desire to stop drinking. This lawsuit seems aimed to restrict that freedom to associate.

"Perhaps bars, which unlike AA are in fact licensed by the State, should be required to segregate patrons who have been convicted of a crime into separate rooms from law-abiding drinkers? More education is needed, all across society, on the subtle nature and impacts of patriarchy, male privilege, and other forms of oppression. Safe places need to exist, without restricting freedom of association, for mutual support and aid of all types.

"Gender-specific meetings and treatment programs are important and should be expanded, but they themselves do not solve the problem of domestic violence and patriarchal attitudes.

"An issue touched on in the video, but inadequately explained, is the abuse of 12-step fellowships as part of criminal sentences. Not only is court-ordering people to attend 12-step meetings inconsistent with the traditions of AA as an autonomous fellowship in which the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, legal precedents explicitly prohibit 12-step meeting attendance as a compulsory intervention (e.g. DeStefano et al., Appellants, v. Emergency Housing Group, Inc., et al., Respondents [281 AD 2d 449; 722 NYS 2d 35]; Arnold v. Tennessee Board of Paroles [1997], Griffin v. Coughlin [New York, 1996], Warner v. Orange County Department of Probation [2nd Cir. 1997], Rauser v. Horn [3rd Cir. 2001], and Kerr v. Farrey [7th Cir. 1996]).

"Perhaps the fact that the story is set in California is one factor, but the above cited decisions are Federal precedents. Maybe the USSC needs to rule for courts across the country to get the message.

DeStefano is perhaps the most widely cited of the above mentioned decisions. While AA is clearly not a "religion" per se, it promotes a spiritual world-view and calls on individuals to come to some sort of understanding and relationship with a Power higher than themselves, Courts have widely held that compelling criminals to attend 12-step meetings in order to avoid incarceration violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment and is unconstitutional. One unmet need evidenced by the 48 Hours story is the inadequacy of available services and supports, both professional (inpatient and outpatient care) and non-professional (like AA, NA, etc.), designed for women, men, LGBTQ, and other special populations."

The lawsuit by the parents of Karla Brada Mendez was reportedly filed around September of 2012. At this writing, no information is known to have been made public concerning how the case proceeded, whether it was dismissed, settled out of court, or if litigation is ongoing. None of the articles I have been able to find on the web about this lawsuit even contain a docket number. It would be interesting, as an academic matter, to know the outcome. If anyone reading this knows, I would be pleased to update this page. Based on what I have read, however, I doubt the lawsuit will get far, even if a court recognizes the parents' alleged standing to sue.

The vast majority of women and men currently in recovery from alcoholism or addiction to other drugs benefited from co-educational treatment programs and engage in integrated male/female support meetings. In so doing, members of 12-step fellowships suggest that men stick with men, and women with women, for support; choose a sponsor of the same gender; and not start any new intimate relationships during the first year of recovery. This is a system which has worked well for countless thousands of people in recovery who have chosen to work it.

Still, it is important to acknowledge the gender-specific local programs that exist locally, specifically designed to meet the needs women who prefer them, as well as the advocating for the creation of more...

Women-Only 12-Step Meetings in Sullivan County, New York:

  • Women in AA, Mondays, 7:00 PM, Rock Hill ambulance building
  • Women's NA meeting, Wednesdays, 6:00 PM, Clubhouse, 17 Hamilton Avenue, Monticello
  • Words of Wisdom Women's AA Group, Saturdays, 11:00 AM, Clubhouse, 17 Hamilton Avenue, Monticello

Women's Inpatient Programs (not co-ed):

  • New Hope Manor, Inc., Barryville (long-term residential): "New Hope Manor is committed to offering high quality, research-based substance abuse treatment services that are sensitive to the individual needs of each woman. We respect the dignity and uniqueness of every woman who seeks our help, and strive to enhance the personal growth and development of those we serve... Our program works to strengthen families, including the bond between women and their children, and to involve family members in the treatment process whenever possible" (website).
  • Richard C. Ward Addiction Treatment Center, Middletown (21 to 28 days): "The Women's Program is based upon the philosophy that women have unique needs that can be addressed in a discrete setting. The core component of this track is a multi-disciplinary treatment team based on the principle of 'women treating women'. Gender specific programs address the many barriers that traditionally have blocked women from accessing treatment" (website).


Links to Meeting Locators and Treatment Programs

Any errors, omissions, and additions to the above list of local programs may be addressed to tom@choicesmhc.com. This posting is not approved by and does not reflect the views of AA or any other organization or agency. Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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