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SPECIAL REPORT: When interventions go wrong

August 12, 2013
by Alison Knopf, Contributing Writer
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(Third and final in a series)

(Read part 1)

 (Read part 2)

Several years ago, Shirley Beckett Mikell, who runs the certification program for NAADAC, The Association for Addiction Professionals, received a phone call from an Illinois family who had hired an interventionist. The family told the 16-year-old daughter that she was coming to a family gathering in a private room in a restaurant. When she arrived, she was immediately confronted about her addiction and her behavior. A shouting match ensued, and the girl ran into the street, was hit by a truck, and died.

The interventionist did not hold any credential from NAADAC, and was not certified or licensed in Illinois. “The family couldn’t go after them for damages,” says Mikell. “I found out afterward that the person wasn’t licensed or credentialed at all—they had completed a 40-hour training course for a certificate.”

That tragic outcome, so far from what the family hoped for, could have been prevented, experts believe. Rebecca Flood, president of the Association of Intervention Specialists (AIS), recommends that every family seeking an interventionist should look for someone with credentials and with liability insurance.

“It’s like buying any other service—they should be asking for references for people they can call,” says Flood, who is executive director of the New Directions for Women treatment facility. “Interventionists as professionals should be aware of this.”

Flood, who was trained by Vernon E. Johnson, developer of one of the main models of intervention, says families are looking for answers. “They themselves are wounded and hurting, and the family system needs help,” she says.

Botched interventions and reality TV

Interestingly, some professionals say that if you want to see a botched intervention, there are some on the recently canceled A&E show “Intervention.” Michael Walsh, president and CEO of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP), says “Americans like to see people on fire,” and that’s why the most popular “Intervention” episodes were those that showed families and clients—and sometimes interventionists—at their worst.

Walsh considers well-known interventionist John Southworth to be one of the best interventionists in the world. “He was under contract with A&E, but only on the show a few times because there wasn’t any drama,” Walsh says. “Before John agreed to do the show, we asked why don’t they do 20 minutes of the intervention and 5 minutes of using, instead of the reverse. They said, ‘Nobody would watch.’”

In fact, the show sometimes portrayed interventionists as making statements that were clearly non-therapeutic, only for “shock value,” says Walsh. In one show, one person in the intervention team knew the young woman had been brutally assaulted sexually, and the friend who knew didn’t want to have to say it during the intervention. The interventionist in the pre-intervention said it would be brought up only if necessary. It wasn’t necessary, but it was brought up—the interventionist told the friend it had to be said.

“The family didn’t need to know this, and I certainly didn’t need to know it watching it on national television,” says Walsh. “A licensed professional shouldn’t have done this.”

Ken Seeley, founder of Intervention 911 (which worked closely with A&E on the show), says he has been called in to conduct interventions in the wake of prior failed interventions. “Years ago a family had hired an interventionist, and the addict started calling out everybody else’s shortcomings,” said Seeley. “The interventionist said, ‘He’s too sick, just divorce him,’ and walked out.” This created harm, and when Seeley was called in six months later to re-intervene, everyone in the family was too scared to say anything.

Stopping the intervention

Sometimes, interventionists need to stop the intervention and let the person leave, says Walsh. “A huge part of the experience and training is knowing how to handle these situations,” he says. “I would have to tell the family that we could keep pushing and the person would probably go to treatment, but they’re not ready. It has to be their decision.”

Walsh says he would not do this with someone who was “psychotic or harming,” he said; on one occasion he reported a physician who might otherwise have operated on a patient while impaired.

Interventionists also have the ability to convince families to use money as leverage, because in many cases the families are well-off, and enabling as well. Walsh explains one family he encountered that was trying to intervene with their son, who had a trust fund, and who was going along with the intervention just to appease the family. Walsh knew the son had no intention of not using drugs.

Walsh recalls, “I said to cut him off financially: ‘Right now all he wants to do is get me out of the house—let him leave’”. Three hours later he called his parents and said there was something wrong with his ATM card. “They said, ‘No, it’s my ATM card now.’ And he understood then that things were going to change.”

It’s also important to be able to think quickly, and to have a plan for more than one treatment center. Walsh was doing an intervention on a Sunday and the client had agreed to go to treatment. But when he heard that the treatment program was in Atlanta, he balked. “I was thinking, ‘He just doesn’t want to go,’” says Walsh. So within minutes, Walsh got him a bed at the Betty Ford Center. “I was able to find out he wasn’t using it as an excuse—he really didn’t want to go to Atlanta.”

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Decades ago, there were no regs or clinical requirements for addictions counselors. Now we have the two systems of ICRC/AODA and NAADAC, and finally, MA level licensure in about 18 states. This piece points to another area where proper preparation and standards are sadly lacking, leading to potential disasters. Recently, I've noticed a similar problem in the recovery coach/mentor role, where, although states are developing credentials, some private entrepreneurs are proclaiming themselves as "credentialed" recovery coaches or directors of recovery coach organizations, whereas they completed a five hour workshop, at best. They promote themselves on social media sites such as LinkedIn, slamming the professional preparation of addictions workforce. Transparency: I am a semi retired addiction studies professor active in INCASE www.incase.org
Peter L. Myers, Ph.D.

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