How Deep Does New Jersey’s Anti-Stigma Messaging Really Run?

July 21, 2022

Counties across the state of New Jersey trumpet their commitment to ending stigma against people with addiction. In 2018, for example, Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes announced a year-long campaign called Stigma Free Mercer. He got county employees to sign a pledge “calling for increased awareness and greater understanding of mental illness and addiction, with a promise to work to eliminate stigma and discrimination within the greater Mercer County community.” Middlesex County and others also have anti-stigma campaigns.

But like the Hydra, new heads can grow when you cut one off. And some of New Jersey’s governmental agencies—and the state bar—retain policies that bluntly contradict an anti-stigma message.

Take the story of Nikki Tierney. A former attorney and mother of four, she almost drowned at Monmouth Beach while under the influence of alcohol, which she drank because she was unable to obtain opioids, way back in 2007. Since her child witnessed the distressing scene, she was arrested, and county prosecutors charged her with a portion of the state’s “child endangerment” statute addressing neglectful parenting.

Tragically for Tierney, the statute is shoddily drafted. Parental neglect encompasses a vast spectrum of issues, exacerbated by income inequality and other stressors, with millions of US parents arguably touching the lower end of the range at some point in their lives. However, New Jersey law groups child neglect under the same subheading—“endangering welfare of children”—as sexual abuse and the production of child pornography, despite the completely different nature of those crimes.

Despite the pitiless public shaming she endured, Tierney wanted to use her experiences to give back to society. Unfortunately, she quickly faced roadblocks.

Through her felony conviction, Tierney’s name was effectively smeared by state lawmakers and prosecutors. She lost custody of her children, was disbarred from practicing law and attempted suicide later in 2007, as a recent profile related. After that, what she called her “journey of wellness” began, including recovery from opioid use disorder and long-term work on her mental health. But the stigma remained. Because of her conviction, she “couldn’t coach her kids’ basketball teams, couldn’t cosign their college loans, couldn’t be a class mom.”

All because she was simultaneously a person who’d struggled with addiction and a parent.

Despite the pitiless public shaming she endured, Tierney wanted to use her experiences to give back to society. She sought to become a licensed addiction counselor.

Unfortunately, she quickly faced roadblocks. First, counselors cannot have certain types of convictions, including “child endangerment”—probably because of that misleading legal conflation of neglect with abuse. A state bill she advocated for, which Governor Phil Murphy signed this year, means that people who make it through drug court, including those who were charged under the “endangerment” statute, can get their records expunged.

On March 9, Tierney finally received her own expungement.

But even so, her disbarment from practicing as an attorney still poses a barrier to a counseling license. On the license application for counselors in New Jersey, question 13 asks: “Have you ever had a professional license or certificate of any type suspended, revoked or surrendered in New Jersey, any other state, the District of Columbia or in any other jurisdiction?” Answering yes can mean the denial of a license.

Tierney likened the current attorney licensing system to a “Megan’s Law of the professions.”

New Jersey is also one of only eight states that makes disbarment permanent. Because of this, Tierney is unable to tell the admission committee that she is now in good standing with the bar.

Speaking with Filter, Tierney likened the current attorney licensing system to a “Megan’s Law of the professions,” referring to the federal law that mandates people convicted of sex offenses be placed on a public registry that attests to an alleged ongoing danger to the public.

For her, the issue is not only one of principle, but of the ability to make a living. She said that the combination of her statute of conviction, and the way the state bar responded, led to her needing to rely on food stamps and family support to get by. She said that she has largely lived below the poverty line since her conviction—again, for something most people would be surprised to learn is even considered a crime—and was even homeless at one point.

Thankfully, her family and community rose up to support her. “After renting and moving every year, my parents helped us buy a modest house so the kids would have stability,” she said. “They also helped in so many other ways. I recognize many others may not have this support. If not for my family, the kids and I never would have made it.”

There is evidence that the situation with disbarment may soon change. On June 7, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a decision in a case, In re Wade, where it refused to reconsider its automatic approach to disbarment for attorneys who willingly misappropriated client funds. But as a side matter, the court also decided to reexamine the state’s permanent disbarment policy, pledging that it will now “establish a broad-based committee to analyze whether disbarment for knowing misappropriation should continue to be permanent, or whether New Jersey should join the majority of jurisdictions that allow for reinstatement.”

“I truly hope the state understands and reconsiders the message they are conveying to people.”

The notion that a person should be permanently disbarred from practicing law because of past addiction issues is a profound injustice. Just as there are calls in the academic field for researchers to feel safe to disclose their own drug use, similar values ought to apply in the field of law—which might just, in a profession that inflicts so much harm on people who use drugs, engender more compassion.

Tierney put it this way: “The rationale New Jersey has proffered to justify permanent disbarment is that the public needs to have confidence in the bar. I would humbly suggest that permanently disbarring a person who was impacted by a substance use or mental health disorder, but has been rehabilitated, does far more damage to the public’s perception of the bar than acknowledging that these are medical conditions. New Jersey’s draconian treatment of attorneys who have recovered from these conditions is futile and humiliating. I truly hope the state understands and reconsiders the message they are conveying to people.”

How much does New Jersey really care about ending or even lightly curbing stigma against people who use drugs or experience addiction? It is of paramount importance for the relevant actors to put an end to this hypocrisy.



Photograph courtesy of Nikki Tierney

Rory Fleming

Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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