BRATTLEBORO—In the five years since former Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his State of the State address to heroin, opioids, and addiction, the state has ramped up its efforts to increase access to treatment for those struggling with substance-use disorders.
Community members have stood before the Selectboard on multiple occasions concerned about the ramifications of the opioid crisis which have become visible throughout downtown.
Finding success stories in the middle of a crisis is difficult, noted Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald, who told the Selectboard that he wanted to speak with the community because he believed successes of Project CARE (Community Approach to Recovery and Engagement) have gone unnoticed.
Fitzgerald assured the Selectboard and members of the public that change is happening, thanks to the project, which is aimed at helping community members who struggle with addiction connect with services and — when a person is ready — with recovery programs.
The chief joined Lt. Adam Petlock, who serves as the police representative and coordinator of the program, and Suzie Walker, executive director of Turning Point of Windham County, a nonprofit offering support to people in recovery, to provide an update on the collaborative outreach program Project CARE during the Aug. 6 Selectboard meeting.
“Everybody walks downtown, and they see a lot of things that disturb them, they see things that are negative, but I’m here to tell you that there are a lot of success stories coming out of this,” Fitzgerald said. “The reason people no longer see them is that they’re no longer downtown.”
According to Petlock, Project CARE seeks to reduce the impact of the opiate crisis on the community, including the number of deaths related to addiction.
The project was launched almost 20 months ago as a partnership among service organizations such as Turning Point of Windham County, Groundworks Collaborative, and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, to name a few.
Fitzgerald said the program is based on the Angel Program, a model created by the Gloucester Police Department in 2015 which established a “stigma-free entry point to treatment on demand and reframed addiction as a disease, not a crime.”
According to its website, the nonprofit Police Assisted Addiction & Recovery Initiative (PAARI) works with the Angel Program to support police departments to “create non-arrest programs that prevent and reduce overdose deaths and expand access to treatment and recovery.”
The Police Department and Turning Point have partnered on the outreach program since its inception.
According to Fitzgerald, the program grew out of community concerns surrounding the national opiate crisis and how it was affecting people in town. Fitzgerald said that the police department chose to take action because of the opiate crisis’s impact on the quality of life in town.
“All too often, when the police department takes the lead, so many other organizations take a step back,” he said. “I certainly didn’t want that to happen this time, mainly because we were way out of our element when we’re dealing with addiction.”
Fitzgerald said that working with the different organizations opened his eyes to the depths of substance dependency as well as its success stories.
He acknowledged that the program still faces a few challenges but that it is time to “take it to the next level.”
Doing so includes promoting Project CARE‘s successes, identifying remaining barriers, and eventually expanding the program.
‘Why are we waiting for people to overdose?’
Petlock said that when police are called to assist someone who has overdosed, Project CARE volunteers follow up with that person. The goal is to check in to see if the person is okay or needs anything.
It is an attempt to be proactive, he said, noting that sometimes people are ready for treatment; other times, not.
Either is okay, Petlock said.
Walker said that Turning Point uses a peer-mentor model to connect people who have lived through experiences of addiction and recovery with people living with substance-use disorders.
“We meet people where they are,” she said. “We don’t try to suggest or impose any modality of recovery.”
Walker said the Project CARE team doesn’t worry about a timeline either — people are ready to take action when they are ready to take action, she said.
Even if someone is content with life at the moment, the Project CARE team can still make sure they’re safe, she continued. Sometimes people want help but have “ruled themselves out of services,” presuming they can’t access or afford them, she added.
In such cases, the team can connect them with the most appropriate people to help them navigate the system.
Often, people are reluctant to open up because they have experienced trauma, she said, or because they’ve been told to “go away” so many times, or because they’ve let people down, Walker said.
“So you go back six or seven times,” and eventually a person sees that someone, a peer, cares. That is when they connect.
Sometimes, people struggle with relapse — a normal part of recovery. Over time, relapses are fewer and there’s more time in between, Walker added.
Petlock said that committing to a program like Project CARE has had a ripple effect through the police department.
To manage the program, officers received new training, they started carrying the opioid-overdose antidote Narcan (naloxone), and the department invited people in recovery into the roll call to speak with the officers.
“We want to use the influence we have as police officers — as police supervisors — to work with these organizations to get people into treatment,” so officers have direct resources and contacts, Petlock said.
Officers have also built new relationships with service providers so when a person needs a specific program or service, police can call someone directly for help.
“The key piece is we want to improve access to treatment,” Petlock said. “Because people who are in treatment are not the people committing crimes, they’re not people who are dying.”
While the program is mostly volunteer, the United Way of Windham County provided a $2,000 grant, which Petlock said has mostly funded transportation for people in treatment to facilities in Vermont such as Valley Vista in Bradford or Serenity House in Wallingford.
Police step up enforcement
“We are not going to stop enforcing,” Petlock said. “As a matter of fact, we’ve increased enforcement.”
For example, the department is sending offers to areas of town where the drug activity is happening, developing mapping software to help track incidents, and working with other law-enforcement agencies.
Fitzgerald, Petlock, and Walker noted that some of the road blocks the team has encountered include transportation and the lack of transitional housing for people just leaving treatment programs.
Petlock said that the team is also trying to improve its data collection and feedback program so it can improve.
Board member Daniel Quipp asked about the follow-visits to people who had recently overdosed. What was the police department doing to collect feedback from those who were visited, their perspective on how the visit went, and what the department could do better?
“I’m a person in recovery, and it reminded me of the vulnerability of those early hours where some kind of terrible thing has happened and somebody feels forced to make a decision,” Quipp said.
In those vulnerable moments, how do the officers communicate to people that “they are loved” and that their community supports them? Quipp asked.
“That’s one the the things we can get better at and we want to get better at,” Petlock said.
Sometimes, he said, the interaction is a small “we’re here for you.” Other times, it’s a deeper conversation with the peer-recovery coaches.
Walker said the meetings require a lot of listening.
“Some people haven’t been heard for so long that they just need a caring listener,” she said. “Along the way, you can get into specifics about resources. We really let the person lead the way for what they’re ready for.”
“When we say ‘success’ in this initiative, it is twofold,” Petlock said.
First, the partnerships, which he described as “amazing.”
The second, Petlock said, is that he sees people when he visits Turning Point who are in recovery and who used to have frequent interactions with officers.
Walker agreed, saying that one of the first people Project CARE helped to access treatment 18 months ago has returned to the area. She said he frequently visits Turning Point, is “doing okay,” and has expressed interest in eventually volunteering with Project CARE.
Two people in recovery who volunteer with Turning Point shared their experience.
Jedediah Popp said his volunteer work as a peer mentor “helps me reflect back on my time of active addiction and what it took for me to finally have that turning point in my life.”
Popp said his recovery path took eight sometimes “hellish” years. Witnessing Project CARE’s efforts makes him think that if he’d had access to such a program, his recovery path would have been shorter, he said.
Everyone has a version of success, Popp said. He assumes that for many in town, that success would be that all who need it are in recovery tomorrow and that the town is happy. But for Popp, his version of success is knocking on doors and talking to people.
“And that brief time of talking to people about how they’re doing [...] is very valuable to me, and I know it’s valuable to them,” he said.
“I see these little tiny successes,” he said.
In his opinion, success won’t come right away. Over time, in small pieces, the community will be able to see how far it has come.
“People do get better,” said Justin Johnston, who said he is in “long-term recovery from opiate addiction.” He started as a volunteer at Turning Point and is now an employee and recovery coach at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.
Peer support “is that first step in that goal of building trust and building relationships and building community,” he said, adding that Project CARE had been a huge part of his own recovery because it reminds him every day why he is sober.
Early in the project’s launch, one of the biggest barriers to the work was trust.
“People were literally running away from us,” he said. Now, they approach the team.
“The barriers that we’re breaking by doing this work is amazing,” he said.