BRATTLEBORO — Under an afternoon sun, people sat at long tables arranged along the Whetstone Pathway in the Preston Parking Lot. The visitors chatted while munching on some of the 300 hot dogs and hamburgers grilled by members of the Brattleboro Police Department.
Some of the diners attended the community cookout on purpose. Others arrived by accident drawn to the scent of the grill.
Brattleboro Police Lt. Adam Petlock and Turning Point Executive Director Suzie Walker estimated 250 people attended the July 13 picnic to launch Project CARE, a long-anticipated outreach initiative aimed at reducing the opiate crisis. CARE stands for “community approach to recovery and engagement.”
The opiate crisis - and its more-visible consequences, such as petty crime and homelessness - has taken center stage in conversations across Brattleboro.
Former Governor Peter Shumlin marked the crisis with a massive bullseye when he devoted his entire 2014 State of the State address to the issue. Still, other community members have watched loved ones struggle with addiction for much longer.
Project CARE wants to bring community partners together to find solutions.
The project unites addiction and service agencies, such as Turning Point, with members of law enforcement, such as the BPD. Ultimately, the network of organizations connects people to recovery services.
Organizers say they not only want to help people dealing with addiction find the services they need, but also help them connect with people who can provide support to those in recovery. The goal is to support people with dignity and compassion so they maintain their recovery.
Approximately a year of behind-the-scenes work has gone into building the Project CARE network. As of July 13, the team has moved into the community.
Walker fielded questions from the public on Friday. People visiting the cookout wanted to know about the kinds of recovery supports that existed in Brattleboro.
According to Walker, when offered commentary on social issues like panhandling, she quickly moved the conversation back toward Project CARE's focus: addiction and recovery.
“We turned the conversations back toward recovery, and hope, and what the project is doing to help,” she said.
Petlock added that some visitors chimed in on whether they thought the whole project would work - or not.
But, he added, a number of people asked, “What can I do to help?”
A big investment
Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald, taking a break after a long afternoon of grilling, grinned and called the picnic a success.
“We ran out of hamburgers,” he said. “Almost all the hot dogs are gone.”
“It feels good,” he said of launching Project CARE. “It's just the beginning, though.”
Fitzgerald said the department, which has invested about 10 months into developing Project CARE, over the years has shifted its purely law-enforcement lens to include treatment and recovery.
“It's really taking a three- or four-pronged approach to this epidemic, which definitely needs a three- or four-pronged approach,” he said.
Arrests are a penalty, Fitzgerald said, and some people think that the threat of serving three months to five years in prison is enough to keep someone from committing a crime.
But in Fitzgerald's view, addiction is multi-layered. Homelessness, mental-health issues, unemployment, or a lack of money can play a role in a person's addiction. And these obstacles can hamper the recovery process.
“On top of that, they have an addiction that truly takes hold and they're not the same people, they truly aren't,” Fitzgerald said.
To peel away the layers requires experts, he said - for example, people from the recovery movement such as Turning Point or the Brattleboro Retreat or, if homelessness is an issue, Groundworks Collaborative. The local hospitals address any medical components of a person's addiction.
“There are so many layers, and to be successful, you have to address each one and slowly move forward,” he said.
Fitzgerald cautioned the community that none of these solutions - alone or together - will fix the opiate crisis overnight.
“An arrest is a 15-minute evolution,” Fitzgerald said. “We arrest you, we process you, and you're released.”
“Nowhere in that did I talk about recovery or resources to address the root of the problem,” he continued. “I addressed the punishment side. But I didn't address the root.”
Fitzgerald wants the community to know that Project CARE won't substitute for stronger sentencing if the situation calls for it.
“I want to be perfectly clear - people need to be held accountable for their actions,” Fitzgerald said. “If you're a victim of someone's ill behavior, we absolutely need to take that into consideration, too.”
“There are no mulligans here,” Fitzgerald continued. “There are no freebies here, so how you hold them accountable, is, I think, the difference.”
In the past, that accountability took the form of people going before a judge and receiving a criminal sentence, he said.
“Now the whole judicial system is looking at it [this opiate crisis] differently,” Fitzgerald said.
In Fitzgerald's view, in some cases, someone who has committed a low-level crime might be better served with a treatment program rather than prison.
“Hopefully, we're getting rid of a lot of the obstacles so people can get on to recovery,” Fitzgerald said.
A work in progress
The fledgling Project CARE is designed to learn and evolve.
Organizers are still building their volunteer teams, bringing treatment providers onboard, and refining procedures.
“It's trial and error - we're going to throw it out there and see it if works,” Petlock said, adding that project organizers want to establish “instant” contacts.
When someone is ready to seek treatment, officers want to connect with services quickly. They don't want to wait and squander what Walker calls a person's “window of willingness” to seek treatment.
Walker said the project conducted an orientation for volunteers last week. Some of the peer counselors at Turning Point involved in coaching people through the recovery process have joined the Project CARE team.
“They're going to be the starter group,” Walker said. “So we'll be adding to the team as we meet new people.”
As Walker spoke, a community member who had attended the picnic caught her attention and handed her a form.
It was a volunteer application.