Hand addiction intervention program to operate year-round, 24-hours a day, according to a joint announcement made Tuesday afternoon by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, acting Union County Prosecutor Lyndsay V. Ruotolo, and Prevention Links Chief Executive Officer Morgan Thompson. Under the new program, all suspects arrested in the county for low-level possessory offenses involving heroin or other opioids will be offered face-to-face access to rehabilitative services at the time of arrest.
The program is part of an effort to address the ongoing opioid epidemic, which continues to affect New Jersey and the country generally. In the past five years, more than 500 people in Union County have died due to a drug overdose.
“Using as our model the program Attorney General Grewal started in Bergen County as Prosecutor and expanded statewide as Attorney General, Union County hopes to bring life-saving recovery assistance to those in the throes of addiction through our launch of Operation Helping Hand 24/7/365,” Prosecutor Ruotolo said. “The opioid epidemic has had a devastating cost in lives lost and futures diminished. We in law enforcement recognize that while we continue to aggressively investigate and prosecute those who profit from poisoning the people we serve, we must do more in our fight to save the lives of those who have fallen prey to addiction. Operation Helping Hand 24/7/365 is our effort to do more, and we are grateful for the partnership we have with Prevention Links, and the support we have from state and county government, to accomplish this goal of doing more.”
In support of the new initiative, Prosecutor Ruotolo has issued a directive mandating that every law enforcement agency countywide put protocols in place to ensure a smooth and all-encompassing implementation of the program. Operation Helping Hand 24/7/365 requires that law enforcement officers offer all individuals arrested for possessory level opioid offenses the option to meet face-to-face with a peer recovery coach from Prevention Links at the time of their arrest. If the individual decides to avail themselves of the program, a peer recovery coach from Prevention Links will respond to police headquarters to meet with the individual to discuss recovery options and coordinate access to services. The individual’s criminal charges are not discharged as the law enforcement officers are required to uphold the law, but as Ruotolo said, “not doing more in that moment is a lost opportunity for law enforcement to bring help to those who need it.”
“Union County’s expansion of its Operation Helping Hand program to a year-round, 24/7 service demonstrates the kind of commitment we were looking for when we encouraged counties to implement pilot programs reflecting OHH’s core concept of proactively engaging law enforcement in reaching out to at-risk individuals,” said Attorney General Grewal. “By taking the unprecedented step of offering OHH intervention and support services on a continuous basis, Union County assumes a leadership role in the fight to end the addiction epidemic and brings hope to the countless individuals impacted by this devastating health crisis.”
This initiative, and others geared toward addressing the opioid epidemic, have been bolstered by grant funding obtained from state and county government. Specifically, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office was recently awarded $62,500 from the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety’s 2019 Overdose Data to Action Operation Helping Hand Grant. The Union County Prosecutor’s Office is also the recipient of $100,000 in grant funding through Governor Phil Murphy’s Operation Helping Hand Grant. The acceptance of the aforementioned grant funding was approved by the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders and County Manager Edward T. Oatman. In addition, the Freeholders, and Director Debbie-Ann Anderson, of the Department of Human Services have awarded grant funding to Prevention Links in support of the incredible services they provide county residents. The Freeholders also dedicated $110,000 in direct County funding to Prevention Links for the expansion of the Operation Helping Hands program for 2020. The Union County Prosecutor’s Office is able to allocate a portion of the grant funds received from the State to Prevention Links, and combining those funds with what was awarded from the Board of Chosen Freeholders, Prevention Links was able to hire additional staff so that Prevention Links could serve as the primary rehabilitative partner in this innovative law enforcement initiative.
In 2016, while serving as the Bergen County Prosecutor, Attorney General Grewal developed Operation Helping Hand as a new and innovative way to combat opioid addiction. Under his leadership, the first multi-county “Operation Helping Hand” initiative was launched in five counties, including Union, in June 2018. Through state and federal funding, the Operation Helping Hand program was expanded to 17 counties in September 2018, and to all 21 counties in the state in September 2019.
In May 2019, Union County law enforcement agencies pooled their resources for a second week-long Operation Helping Hand session, during which approximately 88 percent of the 148 people contacted through the program agreed to engage in some form of rehabilitative assistance. Of the individuals who accepted help, 56 were entered into inpatient detox treatment, 43 entered intensive outpatient or community-based support program, and 29 entered medically assisted treatment. Remarkably, included in those accepting help at the time were 25 “walk-ins” – drug users who were not arrested, but had heard about the program through word of mouth and approached law enforcement for recovery assistance.
The statewide expansion of Operation Helping Hand has been fueled in part by $1 million in federal funding and $2.2 million in state funding dedicated during the last two years alone. This is, however, the first anywhere that the program has been implemented full time.
“This initiative has shown and will continue to show a commitment on the part of our county to leverage every opportunity to connect individuals struggling with addiction to a life of recovery,” Thompson said. “For some, this may be the first time they are ever offered help.” Thompson and Prevention Links have been a Union County partner in Operation Helping Hand from its inception.
The expansion of Operation Helping Hand to the new 24/7/365 model is one of many ways that law enforcement is working to address the opioid epidemic in Union County. Earlier this year, Prosecutor Ruotolo formed the Opioid Task Force, which operates out of the Major Crimes Division of the Prosecutor’s Office, and tasked it with helping persons suffering from opioid addiction get the help necessary to address their disease, while also aggressively investigating those profiting from the sale of heroin and the deadly fentanyl.
In 2017, the Community Law Enforcement Addiction Recovery (CLEAR) program was launched, sponsored by the Union County Board of Freeholders, Union County Sheriff’s Office, Union County Prosecutor’s Office, and Union County Police Department. Through the program, citizens seeking help can travel to one of two locations – the Union County Sheriff’s Office in the New Annex Courthouse basement level, 27 Elizabethtown Plaza in Elizabeth, and the Union County Police Department headquarters, 300 North Ave. E., Westfield – anytime from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays, where they can be connected to addiction recovery services free of charge and turn over user-level quantities of drugs and paraphernalia without fear of arrest, prosecution, or questioning. These services will continue, and Operation Helping Hand 24/7/365 is an expansion of these innovative efforts.
In addition, since 2014, patrol officers countywide have been equipped with supplies of naloxone, a lifesaving overdose-reversal drug. Since that time, police have deployed the drug more than 1,000 times, with more than 90 percent of recipients surviving.