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Maryland County Offers Safe Place for Opioid Addicts

Not so long ago, the Brooklyn Park Fire Station in Maryland treated so many opioid overdose cases, staff sometimes ran out of naloxone. Now, thanks at least in part to Anne Arundel County’s Safe Stations program, Brooklyn Park may go an entire 24-hour shift without needing the life-saving overdose reversal drug.

Just like much of the rest of the U.S., Anne Arundel County has an opioid problem. And also like much of the rest of the country, Anne Arundel, the home of the Maryland state capital of Annapolis, has put time, effort and personnel into finding solutions. The county’s present efforts include the “Not My Child” community awareness program (http://www.aacounty.org/departments/county-executive/county-initiatives/heroin/), a school education effort through a revived D.A.R.E. program (see related article, “Anne Arundel “D.A.R.E.(S)” to Expand Opioid Prevention Education”), and Safe Stations.Safe Station logo

The latter program is exactly what its name says: Individuals seeking help in dealing with their addiction can walk into any one of 41 fire and police stations in the county, including the state police barracks and Annapolis city police stations, to say “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired, and I need help.” In the program’s first 10 months of operation, some 512 individuals did just that, with a successful treatment rate of 58 percent.

Individuals who walk into a fire station (most participants choose a fire station) receive a preliminary medical evaluation from emergency medical staff, who then call in one of the county’s Crisis Intervention Teams. The CIT team, which includes a clinician and a police officer, comes out to the station to “meet them where they are and give them a hand to hold at every step of the process,” according to Jen Corbin, director of the Anne Arundel County Crisis Response System.

“We work with them on taking the next step. If they need immediate medical attention, if they need to detox, we get them to the hospital,” Corbin says. “If there isn’t a medical emergency, we work on finding them a spot in treatment and on finding them a crisis bed or another safe place to stay for the interval until we can get them into treatment. We drive them to treatment, and once they’re in, we keep in touch with the treatment provider and we arrange whatever they need after treatment: a care coordinator, a place to stay, a job.”

On the law enforcement side, Lt. Steve Thomas coordinates rearranging court dates if needed and has an officer walk the individuals through the judicial process when the time comes. Participants must turn in any weapons (there have been none in the first 10 months), drugs and drug paraphernalia when they come to the station, which are collected by law enforcement for destruction purposes only.

“If they’ve previously been charged with a misdemeanor or a nonviolent crime, we’ll work with the state’s attorney to get it placed in a hold. Outstanding charges for certain felonies or violent domestic assaults are treated differently,” says Anne Arundel County Police Public Information Officer Marc Limansky. “Critics said that individuals would turn themselves in just to get out of going to court, but that’s not the case. Lt. Thomas or another officer takes them to their court dates and speaks on their behalf, and our working with the judges to get postponements allows them to go through treatment and stand in front of the judge sober.”

Similar critics told Corbin that her team was enabling program participants, which she counters by saying the program needs to be judged by the end results: “One of our care coordinators was going through the judicial system four years ago and now he’s three years in recovery and on his way to becoming a certified peer specialist. When he tells someone in withdrawal he knows what they’re going through, he means it. We’ve had many people come in who were stealing from their families to get their next fix, and now they have jobs and pay their own rent as productive members of society. We don’t have any statistics yet on the program’s impact on petty crime, but we’re sure there’s been a reduction.”

And while there continue to be overdoses and overdose deaths in the county, Corbin is certain the program has had an impact there as well, noting that many individuals who come to a Safe Station had themselves overdosed not long before coming in looking for help.

“Numbers tend to pick up on Mondays after there have been reports of overdoses on the weekend,” she says, adding that generally Fridays and oddly enough, Wednesdays, are the program’s busiest days. When Safe Stations began, Corbin thought the existing CITs could handle incorporating the expected five calls a week along with their regular caseload of assisting with police crisis calls. However, during the first six weeks of 2018, the program averaged nearly 2.5 calls a day (127 through February 22).

“We thought it would be just like dispatching a team on a police call, but we learned that it’s much more time-consuming. Then with success came backfire: people who had completed the program started telling their friends to come in,” she says, adding that with fire department assistance, the program was able to add an additional team dedicated solely to Safe Stations. The county health department also has funded part-time on-call staff to help cover peak hours so there won’t be a repeat of the Saturday night when Corbin found herself needing to deal with three calls, none of them near each other, simultaneously.

“We were desperate so we said we were going to go big or go home,” Corbin says of the decision to launch Safe Stations everywhere in the county at the same time, with services starting on April 20, 2017. “We’re now working with some nearby counties who want to create something similar, and we’re telling them to start small, learn from your mistakes and gradually grow the program. We did the opposite, and fortunately for us, it worked out.

“And you can’t say you don’t have the money to do something like this, either. You need to look at the relationships you have between all the agencies in your county and figure out what everyone can bring to the table,” Corbin adds. Anne Arundel grew its Safe Stations project from just such a working group, and found a number of agencies that wanted to help, including one that took on some clients at a loss, knowing their insurance wouldn’t pay for the care they needed.

Capt. Russ Davies of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department says joining the working group and the program has definitely had a positive impact on how the fire department provides services. In addition to the reduction in overdose calls in some areas, “when somebody comes into the station, the unit is down for about an hour waiting for the Crisis Team, instead of the three hours it would have been down handling an overdose call by the time you consider response, scene time, transport time, hospital wait time and returning to the station.”

In spite of the increased workload, Corbin says at the end of the day when she’s asked why she supports the program, she says it just feels good to know she’s helping people: “I go visit them 30 or 40 days later and they tell me I saved their lives. That makes it worth it.”

For more information on Anne Arundel County’s Safe Stations program, contact Anne Arundel County Police Department Public Information Officer Marc Limansky at p93489@aacounty.org.

Article photo: Anne Arundel County Fire Department

About The Author

Becky Lewis has written professionally for nearly 40 years, the past 12 as a technical writer/editor with the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center System and its Justice Technology Information Center. She writes for SchoolSafetyInfo.org as well as for TechBeat.

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