Innovative intervention initiative is working — and has been extended

Louis Cappelli Jr. (File photo)

I met Felisha Buzzard for the first time at Camden County College, where we were both preparing to address a gathering of various reporters, stakeholders and officials, when she told me the story she was prepared to share with everyone else. Her story was at the same time remarkable while being entirely too familiar.

Buzzard had lost custody of her 2-year-old daughter some time before her third DUI and amid her ongoing struggle with heroin addiction. She showed up to Pennsauken municipal court one day following that third charge expecting punishment and a fall further towards the bottom of life’s deepest recesses.

Fortunately, Buzzard’s day in court didn’t go the way she’d thought it would. She was approached in court by a clinician, who offered her a substance abuse assessment and the opportunity to pursue treatment in lieu of the punishment she was otherwise facing, and she accepted. Now five months sober, Buzzard is a student at Camden County College pursuing a degree and future career in peer counseling. She was expected to regain custody of her daughter just days after we spoke.

Her story was made possible by an unprecedented countywide program called Project SAVE (Substance Abuse Visionary Effort), launched by the freeholder board and Camden County Addiction Awareness Task Force one year ago. The unique diversion program provided at the municipal level is designed to assist those suffering from the disease of addiction to navigate obstacles, barriers and treatments so they can get access to care they need, regardless of their ability to pay.

The model for Project SAVE was pioneered in Gloucester Township in 2014, and a countywide program was first launched as a one-year pilot in 2018. The objective was to address the opioid epidemic in our communities, and to reduce addiction-related recidivism in our jails, by shifting the focus of police efforts and practices beyond the initial arrest.

Here’s how it works: Nonviolent offenders who enter the municipal court system are given the opportunity to connect with a licensed social services professional who can refer and connect them to appropriate treatment resources regardless of their ability to pay, and in lieu of sentencing. Importantly, contact does not end after referral. Project SAVE advocates spend many additional hours conducting follow-up calls, meetings and other pursuing measures to ensure that each defendant is successfully navigating their treatment.

One year after launch, 34 of the county’s 37 municipalities are participating, and program advocates have successfully referred 467 low-level offenders like Buzzard for treatment to end their substance dependence. By facilitating the program at the county level, the freeholder board has been able to leverage economies of scale to lower the overall cost of the program for all of the participating municipalities.

In response to the incredible success achieved in the program’s first year, the board and task force announced last month our intention to extend and fund the program for at least an additional three years so that we can continue to study the impact of early intervention at the municipal court level, and to further expand the availability of substance use treatment to those who need it.

When someone with an opioid use disorder comes into municipal court, the answer is rarely punitive. Instead, we have to address the disease that’s driving their behavior. That’s why the board remains committed to ending the scourge that is the opioid epidemic, and we will continue to implement and expand upon innovative solutions that address the root cause of these issues.

Thanks to the success of our dedicated advocates and law enforcement officials, we have hundreds of individuals currently receiving care that may have otherwise been sitting in a jail cell, committing a crime in their community or overdosing in their living room. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 70,000 people die from drug-related deaths every year — every life saved should be understood as a resounding success.

The Camden County Addiction Awareness Task Force was created by the freeholder board in 2014 and maintains the website to help educate residents on the resources available to prevent and treat opioid use disorder. If you or a loved one needs help, please know that there are options available and that you do not have to go it alone. Call our 24/7 toll-free confidential hotline for addiction help at 877-266-8222.

Every year, we lose more Americans to the opioid epidemic than we did in the entirety of the Vietnam war. It doesn’t have to be like this, and in Camden County we’re committed to getting people like Buzzard back on their feet and on the right track. We have a lot of work to do, but the early results tell us that the sun may finally be starting to rise on this issue.

Louis Cappelli Jr. is Camden County freeholder director.