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Court-Forced into 12-Step


short arm of the law Photo via

By Laura Barcella


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Various memos floating around the Internet claim to convey official AA statements on the subject of abuse, like this one called “Predators in AA”: “Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon Family Groups and Alcoholics Anonymous in Great Britain and Australia have taken tangible strides to deal with the problem of child sexual abuse and other such issues in their Fellowships. . .In the March 2006 NA Conference Report it was noted that, ‘Our greatest challenge this past year was dealing with unsafe and dangerous people in local groups.’” All kinds of complaints, from minor (club houses charging too much money for books) to more serious (complaints about inappropriate behavior from a secretary) do arise, of course, at individual meetings. And though the General Service Office in New York meets regularly to review correspondence about these complaints, AA is an independent nonprofit that invokes the 4th Tradition (that each group should be autonomous, except in matters affecting AA as a whole) in dealing with such issues.

AA would be going against its own principles to institute a vetting process for who can and can’t join.

Fortunately, most 12-steppers accept—even appreciate—the fact that each meeting is its own lawless entity. And plenty of AAs aren’t especially alarmed by the prospect of mingling with a wide variety of characters, even ones who’ve scraped with the law. Betsy, 34, of Berkeley, Calif., says she makes a point of staying aware of her surroundings and the people near her in meetings, but has never felt afraid. “I’m not scared in meetings,” she says. “I’ve never felt personally threatened by anyone in AA, and I’ve never felt vulnerable to abusive sorts.” She concedes, though, that some people might not be as lucky. “My girl friends have shared some pretty shady ‘13th-step’ stories,” she says. “And some of them were gross, sure, but they weren’t that extreme—and they definitely weren’t illegal.” Betsy doesn’t think it’s logical, ethical, or even truly possible for AA to screen potentially “difficult” members. “That’s not what AA’s about. It’s for everyone. It’d be going against its own principles to institute a vetting process for who can and can’t join.”

Hard statistics about AA’s success among involuntary members are difficult to come by. One study showed that the same number of alcoholics found success in AA regardless of whether they showed up voluntarily or were court-ordered. (About five percent made it to one year sober, regardless of how they got there.) Sheri Sandecki acknowledges the concerns of folks who dislike the presence of “forced” attendees: “I’ve heard people say it poisons the meetings because [of] people who don't want to be there. But if the miracle and message of sobriety can get through, what a wonderful thing,” she says.

Court-ordered AA is no panacea, however. Especially not for atheist offenders who are pushed into 12-step despite specifically requesting an addiction treatment that isn’t spiritually based. As one offender, “Norezen” of Buffalo, NY, posted on an online bulletin board about his experience, “I begged the probation and treatment court to allow me to attend secular treatment (clinics, psychiatrists, counseling) but they absolutely refused.”

Because of this spiritual (some say religious) bent, the practice of court-mandated 12-step attendance has continued to be controversial in recent years—and some courts have outright opposed it. Three federal circuit courts have held that coerced participation in “religion-based” treatment programs like AA and NA violates the First Amendment. As the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco put it, "While we in no way denigrate the fine work of [Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous], attendance in their programs may not be coerced by the state." Sandecki says she’s only witnessed this type of protest once or twice in her nearly 20-year law career, and that most “courts can sidestep around [the First Amendment issue] with a justification of why [the court-mandated AA] is lawful.”

Sandecki also notes that court-ordered 12-step can be difficult for judges to enforce because fraudulent court slips are rampant. “NA and AA are designed to be anonymous, so when you turn a fraudulent card in to the judge, it’s hard for the judge to prove [it’s fake]—they have to track down the meeting, the secretary, etc.” Still, having seen it work firsthand in many formerly shattered lives, she feels the drawbacks of court-prescribed AA are minor compared to its huge capacity to help people: “Some clients don't take it seriously; they’re just trying to get on with their lives without much change. But it can also expose people to NA and AA who wouldn’t have normally been exposed to it—it has the capacity to change millions of lives if it clicks with them.”

Laura Barcella is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about the link between adoption and addiction.

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