KINGSTON, NY — In the past year, 28% of the overall overdoses in the county “were intentional,” Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa said.
At a press conference Tuesday at the Ulster County Law Enforcement Center, he said that a two-year $400,000 grant from the US Department of Justice will allow his office to expand existing services some of which are now provided by the Opioid Response as County Law Enforcement (ORACLE) Team, by creating SAFE, the new Support & Advocacy through Frontline Engagement team.
With this grant, Figueroa said, “We’ll have two fully embedded teams (in Ulster County law enforcement) — one for the substance abuse issue and the other for mental health and behavioral health.”
Over the last four years, the sheriff said, his office has “been able to get close to $3.1 million dollars in grants related to this epidemic. And these embedded teams, with law enforcement, are really going to make a change.”
The program, under the leadership of Juanita Hotchkiss, director of community and incarcerated programs at the Sheriff’s Office, and Lt. Chad Storey, will hire a clinical social worker able to make referrals and assessments and a mental health peer advocate and will allow the county to connect more people to crisis services than it currently can.
The grant will facilitate the hiring of “community policing professionals, develop and test innovative policing strategies, and provide training and technical assistance to community members, local government leaders and all local law enforcement agencies,” he said. SAFE will expand on the ORACLE Team by adding a social worker credentialed in alcoholism, a substance abuse counselor, peer advocates, care managers and deputy sheriffs trained in crisis intervention to connect residents in need with the services they need.
Hotchkiss said her program looked for “gaps” in services and that SAFE is a “redesigned ORACLE” able to expand on “a community-led response to opioid overdose.”
“Together with the partnership of behavioral health providers (the SAFE Team) will bridge the gap and help connect those with mental and behavioral health issues associated with substance use disorder,” Figueroa said.
This year, Hotchkiss said, her office began to track “the nature of every overdose referral,” and became aware of the number of intentional overdoses in the county. “What we learned is that about 28% of the overdoses were deemed intentional, meaning that the individual has taken whatever substance … with the intention to harm themselves.”
That determination, she said, is made when either a note is left behind or responds are “told specifically.” The data led to a determination that there was a need for additional mental health services.
“We’re seeing the growth. We’re seeing the need and we need to address it,” Hotchkiss said.
Even with what she deemed an “incredible response” from the county Department of Mental Health, Hotchkiss said, “there was a gap” the SAFE Team will address by making “first touch encounters” with people in need. She said the team will not “replicate anything we have already seen in the community” but will allow the county to reach more individuals, “to assess their needs and to refer them for services.”
Storey said the SAFE Team will mirror the structure of the ORACLE Team and will educate law enforcement officials with “crisis intervention team training.”
Police are often the first responders in cases of overdose, Storey said. “Most people who have been in law enforcement… our frustration has always been, we go to a call and never have any services to offer. And that’s what this team is going to do, bridge that gap and make referrals out to our community partners.”
Figueroa recognized the support of US Rep. Pat Ryan, D-Gardiner, who spoke at the press conference of the need for SAFE’s “healing, compassionate approach.”
Ryan said the federal dollars he helped secure “will go a long way to combating the addiction crisis and keeping Hudson Valley families safe.”
Ulster County Executive Jen Metzger praised the Sheriff’s Office for “continuously innovating to address the public safety challenges we face today” by following up on intentional overdoses as well as behavioral health-related 911 calls and linking and collaborating with community-based mental health organizations.
She said the grant will go a long way to assure that the county is “appropriately and directly addressing crisis situations that are related to mental health and substance abuse disorder” by addressing the “root causes of many of the calls that you are called upon to respond to.”
She said Figueroa and his office are “creating a national model” with the ORACLE and SAFE teams.
“With these additional funds, the ORACLE team will be able to expand collaboration with community organizations on the ground and ensure that law enforcement responds appropriately and effectively in crisis situations involving mental health and substance use disorder,” Metzger said.