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Among them is Cumberland County, New Jersey, Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae, who grew increasingly frustrated at seeing the same people charged over and over again in the county’s courts while drug-related crime steadily increased.
Recognizing that interrupting the drug supply was only part of the solution—that more had to be done to reduce the demand, and that just arresting users and offering treatment wasn’t enough—she became determined to find a new way.
In 2016, Webb-McRae gathered local stakeholders and asked them to come up with some new ideas. Two of their suggestions—hiring recovery coaches and setting up a 24/7 help hotline to connect the coaches with individuals suffering from substance abuse—were soon implemented. But despite the coaches’ efforts, getting treatment for those who needed it was still a challenge. The system was difficult to navigate and most substance users weren’t sufficiently motivated to try.
In search of a way to expand these efforts, the county, under Webb-McRae’s direction, adopted the Operation Helping Hand (OHH) model, then in use by other New Jersey counties. Developed by New Jersey Attorney General Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal while he was serving as the Bergen County, New Jersey, Prosecutor, OHH is focused on reducing drug abuse though direct personal intervention. It is designed to promote the kind of community partnerships that turn law enforcement encounters into an opportunity for individuals to turn their lives around. The OHH model involves having recovery specialists at the station to connect individuals arrested for drug use to treatment.
According to Grewal, “It represents a different kind of policing, in which the goal is not to rack up arrests but to offer individuals using illicit drugs the help they need to break the cycle of addiction.” And this was exactly the kind of approach Webb McRae envisioned.
Looking for the most effective way to implement the OHH model, she reached out to experts in a variety of areas including substance addiction and law enforcement, as well as stakeholders from community organizations and government agencies, asking them to brainstorm additional new ideas.
What they came up with was Recovery on Wheels (ROW), a mobile addiction recovery unit staffed by drug and alcohol counselors as well as trained recovery coaches.
Funded by an OHH grant and housed in a retired fleet bus donated by the County’s Office of Aging, ROW travels to communities throughout the county, parking in lots close to locations where people gather. In doing so, ROW provides on-the-spot counseling to those in need as well as access to transportation to rehabilitation centers for those who request detox and treatment.
In ROW’s first year of operation, the unit has made more than 30 road trips, connecting with more than 100 individuals, approximately 75 percent of whom went directly into treatment. And more people continue to be helped every time the bus goes out.
Like all OHH programs, ROW is a team effort. The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office maintains the bus, providing fuel and supplying a driver. Their staff also disposes of used prescription or illegal drugs and provides the temporary IDs necessary for admission to a rehab center.
The bus is now connected to a recovery center as well. Operated by Cumberland County’s Department of Human Services’ Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services, Capital Recovery Center provides support services to individuals after detoxification discharge from a treatment center, hospital, or other facility.
The centerpiece of Cumberland County’s expansion of the OHH program, the ROW mobile unit is a collaborative effort supported by the Prosecutor’s Office and other county departments including the Cumberland County Commissioners and the Department of Human Services, the Sheriff’s Department, and the County Department of Health.
According to Matthew Rudd, Special Agent for Strategic Planning & Programs in the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office, law enforcement plays an important role in the county’s efforts to reach and support individuals who suffer from addiction.
With OHH grant funding, a program called Knock and Talk was also developed. Another innovation of OHH, it pairs teams of sheriff’s deputies and recovery coaches to make house calls on users whose lives were saved by officers’ administration of NARCAN or another overdose reversal drug.
Says Rudd, “We speak to family members as well as the individuals themselves to encourage them to enter treatment. And we’ve found that, by and large, the overdose survivors and their families have been very receptive and appreciative of their visits.”
According to Rudd, law enforcement officers and sheriff’s deputies have helped overcome a variety of other challenges as well. “They assisted with managing conflicts with court appearances, getting temporary IDs needed for treatment, and navigating access to treatment appointments, among other things.”
ROW has already shown results in getting people into treatment, which—along with lives saved and crimes averted—demonstrates the increased effectiveness of law enforcement efforts related to substance abuse.
Says Rudd, “When users were arrested, those who seemed to be good candidates were given the choice of having their charges downgraded or dropped if they got treatment. But we found that most who took this option weren’t complying, and there was a high rate of recidivism.
“On the other hand, individuals who’ve heard about OHH and requested help are more successful in overcoming their addiction. We realized that we were spending money on overtime to repeatedly arrest people who were not motivated to get treatment when we could be spending the same amount on recovery coaches and supplies, and have much greater success by making these easily accessible to those who wanted to change their lives.
“We changed our focus from trying to end a social ill through criminal justice tactics to working to prevent it,” he adds. “And all of us involved in the effort—law enforcement, the county and other stakeholders—also realized we could be more effective through collaboration than we could individually.”
And as news of ROW’s success spreads, new partners and treatment providers are expressing interest in joining the program or starting something similar. Among them are a food bank and a homeless outreach group that have asked the bus to park near their locations, health professionals who have offered medical services, and several counties that have asked for guidance on how to replicate it.
Says Melissa Niles, Cumberland County Director of Human Services, “The momentum is growing, and it is not only showing success, but building hope where there wasn’t any before.”
Faye C. Elkins
Sr. Technical Writer
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