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Outreach program reaches out to addicts, families

NEW BEDFORD _ The call crackles on the police radio.

Someone has overdosed on heroin and needs immediate help.

Police respond to the scene, one that has become increasingly common in New Bedford and in cities and towns across the country plagued by heroin addiction.

First responders often administer Narcan, a treatment that revives the patient, who is then transported to the hospital for treatment.

The incident could end there. But the New Bedford Police Department takes a different, more proactive approach.

A few days or weeks after the person has been treated, an outreach team of representatives from the police department, social services agencies and area clergy visits their home.

The outreach team brings education about the use of Narcan and information about resources available for those struggling with substance abuse.

But above all, they deliver compassion. No judgments are issued. The goal is to offer hope for people who are struggling.

Team members knock on doors of those recently treated for overdoses. No one is required to talk to them. Services are entirely voluntarily.

About 50 percent of the time, team members are able to contact the patient or their family members.

The outreach program began in 2015, when team members made 165 home visits over a six-month span. In 2016, the outreach team has made 344 home visits.

On one recent Monday, the outreach team knocks on the door of a home not far from downtown. Family members do not know where their son is at the moment. His most recent overdose was his eighth.

But they do know, as they tell the team members, that he needs help or his story will end in tragedy.

“I know he’s going to and he knows he’s going to if he keeps it up,’’ the father says in a tone that blends anger, sadness and resignation.

But there is always hope that, with the right services in place, people can wage successful battles against the demons that haunt them.

A few miles away, in a south end neighborhood, the team reaches out to a young woman in her early 20s who is standing in her driveway. She struggles to make eye contact with the team members.

“I’m embarrassed,’’ she said. Team members respond almost in unison with two emphatic words: “Don’t be.’’

She doesn’t want her family members inside her home to know what happened. Team members suggest instead that they walk down the street with her and talk.

She is still nervous, but she accepts the pamphlets handed to her, with resources available for treatment and support.

The literature includes overdose prevention tips, support group schedules and information about possible interventions to involve family members in a patient’s efforts at recovery.

Information is available in English, Portuguese and Spanish.

Those involved with the outreach team include Seven Hills Behavioral Health, PAACA (Positive Action Against Chemical Addiction) and the Inter-Church Council of Greater New Bedford. Rev. David Lima is the executive minister of the council and also serves as chaplain of the New Bedford Police Department.

About a dozen New Bedford Police officers have offered to serve as part of this program. They dress in civilian clothes rather than their uniforms to underscore the point that they are visiting in a counseling, rather than law enforcement, role.

“This is not just a law enforcement problem,’’ said New Bedford Police Lt. Ricard Rezendes, who oversees the outreach team. “We are looking at out-of-the-box ways to address this problem.’’

“The ultimate goal is to connect with individuals who overdose, family, friends to support them in the process of resources and connect them to treatment,’’ said Connie Rocha-Mimoso, director of community health services, community health and disease prevention at Seven Hills Behavioral Health.  “Individuals are not always ready to make a change at the moment. However, giving them the tools and support helps them reduce the risk of overdose and think about the different treatment options available to them that they can do.’’

“The outreach program has numerous benefits from reaching individuals and families with a message of hope to strengthening our community by building strong partnerships between law enforcement, faith community and recovery resources,’’ said Carl J. Alves, CEO of PAACA. “We are in the midst of an extreme crisis and the outreach program is one tool demonstrates the power of collaboration.’’

“In one form or another, the clergy are first responders, especially around issues that affect families like opiate addiction and alcoholism,’’ said New Bedford Police Department chaplain Rev. David A. Lima “Families don’t always know who to turn to or are ashamed, scared and confused. Working together with others in this problem helps us to make networks and connections that go a long way.’’

Anyone interested in receiving a visit from the team can call Lt. Ricard Rezendes at 508-991-6300 ext. 79413 or e-mail him at Ricard.Rezendes@newbedfordpd.com.