C.L.E.A.R. Looks to Erase Stigma, Change the Face of Addiction and Recovery
Newton - “He gave me his card, and said ‘We have to do something.’” That’s C.L.E.A.R. co-founder Becky Carlson’s recollection of how Newton Chief of Police Mike Richards approached her in 2015, speaking of Sussex County’s growing opioid addiction issues. C.L.E.A.R. stands for Community Law Enforcement Addiction Recovery. With overdose deaths occurring at a higher rate in Sussex County than elsewhere in New Jersey, a state which already has a higher heroin death rate than the national average, Carlson, executive director of the Center for Prevention and Counseling, agreed.
The pair knew they needed a novel approach to combat the burgeoning numbers of overdose deaths. Even with all police departments in the county equipped with life-saving Naxalone (Narcan), by 2015, the statistics for both opioid-related deaths and Narcan dosages were continuing to rise. After a series of meetings, C.L.E.A.R. was born in July of 2016, and is a full collaboration between law enforcement agencies and peer recovery coaches, who assist those with substance abuse disorders from the first step of seeking help through long term recovery.
“We’re not a rehab,” Carlson said, “we’re a path. We help people navigate the way from admitting they need assistance through the entire process.”
Katie Calvacca is a trainer and recovery coach for C.L.E.A.R. and has been with the group since its inception. “People come to us with very few resources,” Calvacca said, “Sometimes they have no job, no place to live, no money or insurance. We help them from step one all the way through recovery.”
Calvacca is passionate about her work as a recovery coach. “I was in recovery myself, and I didn’t want to talk about it,” she said, “but in 2014, five people from Vernon (Calvacca’s hometown) died within six months. These were people I knew. I reached out to the Vernon Coalition and started to volunteer with them.”
“I was invited to the first meeting at the Newton Police Department,” Calvacca said, “And there were police there, and the county prosecutor, and all these important people- and here I was, I was just this ‘addict’- but I knew I needed to get over my embarrassment. I found a solution. I’m alive. I have a responsibility to help others are struggling.”
C.L.E.A.R. takes its model from other programs around the northeast, notably the PAARI (Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative) founded in Gloucester, MA and the CCAR (Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery) based in Bridgeport. “I think what separates us is the volunteer and peer aspect of the program,” Chief Richards said, “People are more likely to listen to someone who’s been through what they are going through. Someone who can show them there IS a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Newton Medical Center provided resources for the training of the first set of volunteer recovery coaches, but the price tag for the specialized training doesn’t come cheap, and the non-profit, which runs on a near shoestring, didn’t know how they’d pay for training for a new group incoming volunteers. “The community really cares, and the hospital was so generous the first time,” Carlson said, “But you don’t want to continually be asking the same people for help.”
“The screening process is extensive,” Carlson said, “and people need to be truly willing to put themselves out there to become coaches. Once they’d gone through the application process, it would have been disappointing not to train them.” The decision was made that Calvacca and fellow recovery coach Annmarie Shafer would go through extensive certification to become trainers themselves.
Because the recovery coaches are all people with close personal or familial experience with addiction, they receive support from a clinical supervisor, and are urged at all times to be transparent with their own feelings. Shafer, who has a family member in long-term recovery, said it’s important that people take care of themselves while doing this work.
“We have monitoring at all times to combat or deal with any compassion fatigue,” she said, “We’ve had people say they just need to back away for a little while, and that’s okay.”
Shafer also thinks it’s important for people to realize that they don’t have to hit absolute bottom to enroll in the C.L.E.A.R. program. “We are a resource,” she said, “We don’t have to be a last resort. Hitting rock bottom is an outdated thought. There’s no reason to let it go that long, and family members and loved ones can step in earlier, too.”
Chief Richards sees the C.L.E.A.R. program as a tool his department didn’t have before, but is aware that the road to success will be a long one. Both he and Carlson are concerned about the rise of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is stronger, cheaper, and more lethal than cocaine or heroin.
“It’s frightening,” Carlson said, “It’s so powerful and inexpensive.” Richards added that the drug can be so potent, his officers and other first responders have to take great precaution not to fall prey to personal exposure during emergency calls where fentanyl use is suspected.
“It’s fueling a lot of the recent overdose cases we’ve seen lately,” Calvacca said, “It’s completely synthetic and New Jersey is in the epicenter of distribution.”
When it comes to drug distribution, Richards is quick to point out that’s not the major factor affecting Sussex County. “Every area has its own issues,” the chief said, “and we have more of a demand problem than a distribution problem. When someone is arrested for distribution, that reduces supply and the arrest is effective. What we need to do here is reduce demand, and we can’t do that through arrests. We need to do that by getting people into recovery.”
Fear of arrest is a major roadblock to addiction recovery, and C.L.E.A.R.’s primary mission statement addresses that factor in plain language. Any individual seeking enrollment may go to a participating police station “without fear of arrest or prosecution” and any substances and/or paraphernalia will be taken from them and disposed of properly. If the individual has any outstanding legal concerns or charges unrelated to drugs, the police will work with them and the prosecutor to make suitable arrangements or deferments until their substance use issues have been addressed.
“It’s about changing the narrative,” Chief Richards said, “And putting the focus on recovery and not fear. Addiction recovery affects the individual, then ripples out to their family, and further into the community.”
In addition to self-enrollment, grants through the OORP (Opioid Overdose Recovery Program) have allowed C.L.E.A.R. recovery coaches to work bedside at the hospital for those revived by Narcan. In a full calendar year from July 2017 through June 2018, 82% of the patients visited by the coaches began a treatment or recovery program.
C.L.E.A.R. is working, Calvacca said, talking about a recent encounter at Newton Medical Center. “I was visiting with someone who needed outreach, and bumped into a woman who’d come through the program. She didn’t stop to speak, but later texted me to offer encouragement for the person I was speaking to.” That woman had been in the throes of addiction, unable to care for herself or her family. “Now she’s in good shape. She’s able to be a mom again,” Calvacca said, “It’s really cool to watch that happen.”
Carlson said the non-profit wants to expand their exposure and outreach in order to assist more people. “We’ve had some really nice donations of literature from Minisink Press and worked with the technical school and the college to have their design classes help us out,” she said, “and we really are working hard to spread the word.” The program also always gratefully accepts monetary donations, as well as new clothes and toiletries.
“Sometimes people come to us with nothing,” Carlson said, “So if we can get them cleaned up and get them some necessities, it’s a tremendous help.”
“We started this program because we needed to figure out what came after an overdose,” Chief Richards said, “We gave someone Narcan, now what? That’s what we aimed to answer.”
“The police have been so compassionate and caring,” Carlson said, “This is something that affects us all, and we have to be in it together.”
Sussex County C.L.E.A.R is a non-profit, road-to-recovery initiative available to all Sussex County residents. For more information, visit www.clearprogram.org or call 1-844-SC-CLEAR or 1-844-722-5327. Those wishing to enroll in the C.L.E.A.R. program may visit any participating police station from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, or visit the Center for Prevention and Counseling at 65 Newton Sparta Rd, Andover Township, anytime between 4-6 p.m. on the second Monday of every month.
Participating Police Departments:
Andover Twp. PD, 145 Lake Iliff Rd., Newton, NJ 07860
Byram PD, 10 Mansfield Dr., Stanhope, NJ 07874
Franklin Borough PD, 15 Cork Hill Rd., Franklin, NJ 07416
Hamburg PD, 9 Orchard St., Hamburg, NJ 07419
Hardyston PD, 149 Wheatsworth Rd., Hamburg, NJ 07419
Newton PD, 39 Trinity St., Newton, NJ 07860
Ogdensburg PD, 14 Highland Ave, Ogdensburg, NJ 07439
Sparta PD, 65 Main St., Sparta, NJ 07871
Vernon PD, 21 Church St., Vernon, NJ 07462
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