Treatment providers discuss ups and downs of Ricky’s Law

Fentanyl crisis is among top concerns for responders in King County.

Individuals who are considered “a danger to themselves or others, other’s property, or gravely disabled due to a drug or alcohol problem may be involuntary detained” in Washington state. This has been the case since 2018, when a bill called Ricky’s Law went into effect.

With only one location in King County certified to receive people who are detained through this law, about 60% of the beds are filled by people from Pierce County, according to Valley Cities CEO Sheikh Ali.

This discrepancy was one of the many complex issues related to the fentanyl drug crisis, as discussed at a community coffee chat held May 29 by Valley Cities in Federal Way.

The answer comes down to multiple gaps in the process that had civic leaders and Federal Way police representatives frustrated.

Designated responder gap

One officer of the Federal Way Police Department asked the Valley Cities panelists how he can bring people to the facility (Recovery Place in Kent) in order to receive involuntarily detained care. The officer wanted to know how to help those people who are suffering from substance use disorder that police interact with over and over again.

“So when we do get involved or we go out there and are trying to help someone or move our candidates into the hospital, like St. Francis,” the officer said. “We’re seeing the same people go to hospitals to do that cycle. So is it broken somewhere?”

Panelists responded that the officer would need to drop off those individuals at a hospital and hope that the nurse or doctor who evaluates them knows about Ricky’s Law and the Kent facility, knows to call designated responders through King County, and also has the capacity to secure that patient until the designated responder can arrive.

Having only specific individuals be allowed to determine whether someone should be involuntarily committed to secure withdrawal support can cause a lot of issues with the ability to receive care.

“I do think that it was put in place with good intentions, it was intended to streamline the process by having designated people specially trained,” said Teresa Hardy, Director of Recovery Place Kent. The problem, she said, is that there are not enough people doing it.

“Designated crisis responders are employed by King County and I can tell you there is not enough. I think they should have over 30 at least, but I believe the number is in the 20s. There is not enough,” said Hardy. “They also have to go out and be able to be there in a timely fashion at the hospital and often we’re seeing that they are not timely. There is kind of a clock ticking when it comes to detention when they do have to be detained and transported.”

Legal system vs. treatment gap

Burien City Councilmember Linda Akey asked about the recent Blake Decision that gives those caught in possession of drugs the option between jail or treatment.

“Inside that bill, it says that people must be actively in treatment, or they can go to jail,” she said. “I’m confused by what I’m hearing here because it sounds like even if it’s a court mandated process, active treatment isn’t being either properly defined, or properly enforced in some way for people to maintain that treatment. They just go into a voluntary situation and it’s not tracked and run back through the courts to continue to incentivize them to remain in that treatment.”

“How can we get them to you? How can we save their lives? I’m begging you to help us,” Akey said.

Typical treatment centers are there to provide services to legally autonomous adults. This means that if someone chooses to leave treatment, there is nothing that facility can do legally to keep them there, even if they chose that route as an alternative to jail.

“If we do know that they have a court order or if they’re working with a probation officer or whatever that looks like, we will report to those entities that that person is leaving. We’re not going to call the police, but we will notify the legal system so that they can then decide next steps,” said Vicki Brinigar, director of Valley Cities, Recovery Place Seattle.

That could look like issuing arrest warrants or a probation officer attempting to contact that individual, she said, but ultimately that is the responsibility of the legal system, not the treatment center.

Substance use disorder is a complex issue and is becoming more so with the increase poly-substance use and the impact of the powerful drug fentanyl. Interventions like Ricky’s Law and the Blake Decision can create new pathways to recovery, but understanding the gaps in the system is important for anyone who cares about the topic, according to the panelists.

“Educate yourself on on how it develops, what it looks like. We have family members, we have children, loved ones coworkers, like everyone in this room knows people who are addicted to drugs. It is a pervasive problem,” Brinigar said. “I think that if we stopped punishing addicts in terms of all the stigma, judgment, and really start giving them access to care, access to services, and reinforcing that, I think that that’s the best way to go.”