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Police officer John Cacela of Ware, Massachusetts, at left, with Emily Ligawiec at a pottery class where they touch base on her recovery from a drug overdose.Karen Brown takes a look at the opioid crisis in the region.

As Post-Overdose Outreach Expands In Western Mass., Springfield's Role Unclear

A program in Massachusetts that offers help to drug users, as an alternative to arrests, started in Hampshire County. The Drug Addiction and Recovery Team (DART) is now moving into Hampden County. But police in Springfield aren’t taking part, and there’s little information about what they are doing for overdose survivors.

Springfield has the highest number of overdose deaths in western Massachusetts — 80 people died in 2018, which is more than double the year before. Only Boston and Worcester saw more fatal overdoses in the state.

“We absolutely hope to bring [Springfield] on board in the long run,” said Michelle Farry, regional coordinator of DART.

DART started in Northampton in 2016, and now trains police officers around the region to go to the homes of drug users, usually after an overdose. From there, they may offer a hot meal or help getting into recovery.

Farry said she'd like to include Springfield in the program, but it hasn't worked out so far.

"There's only so much we could do at once, and there's a lot of internal work that will need to happen to bring the DART program into Springfield," Farry said. "So their department functions a little bit different, because they have a few different models than some of the other departments around them."

A spokesman for the police department, Ryan Walsh, said Springfield uses a different kind of outreach called Hub and COR.

“The goal is to follow up and get those in need connected to the proper agencies to get them help,” Walsh wrote in an email, but he declined to say anything more about how it works and refused to be interviewed. He said the officer in charge of the program did not want to talk, either.

A press release from 2018 says Hub and COR involves regular meetings between police and community agencies for people with elevated risk of crime. But it does not mention drug use.

Mayor Domenic Sarno's office wouldn't comment, and Springfield's health commissioner, Helen Caulton-Harris, said her department isn't involved in overdose outreach.

Springfield police have done post-overdose visits in the past, according to Erin Daley, head of emergency services at Mercy Medical Center.

“The last time we were involved with them was May of 2019 to do an outreach,” Daley said.

Mercy Medical Center has developed its own form of post-overdose outreach, and Daley said it continues to go out with police from other communities in Hampden County. She said joining with DART will give them more resources, like access to recovery coaching.

But Daley said that in Springfield, at least for now, if a city resident overdoses at Mercy, the hospital will just follow up with a phone call — since the Springfield police are not doing outreach, and are not part of the DART program.

Daley said there is still opportunity in the city to help people at risk of dying from opioids.

“We need to find out what that model of care looks like, and hopefully get additional funding for police resources,” she said. “I think everyone is in agreement that that the uptick in overdoses and mortality in Springfield is very concerning.”

An information table for the Drug Addiction and Recovery Team.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR
An information table for the Drug Addiction and Recovery Team.

Springfield’s participation in post-overdose outreach has become somewhat of a political issue according to Magda Colon, who co-chairs the Hampden County Addiction Taskforce and works for the district attorney's office.

Colon said she can't assess whether Springfield's outreach efforts are working.

"Hub and COR [is] working for the police department," she said. "That's what they selected to choose. So… I can't make any comments on that.”

When asked if the program is working for people addicted to drugs, Colon said, “We haven't gotten any more documentation to prove one way or another.”

The DART program recently held a kickoff event for its expansion into Hampden County, as 10 new towns and cities other than Springfield join the program.

Police chiefs from those other communities, as well as health leaders and elected officials, spoke in support of the DART program and this kind of post-overdose outreach to drug users.

“We are hopeful that the administration in Springfield will learn from the experience of the cities and towns surrounding it, and come to the table,” said Peter Friedmann, chief research officer of Baystate Health in Springfield.

Freidman said his organization has been in discussions with Springfield officials about adopting the DART model. He said he expects Springfield will eventually embrace this type of outreach for those at risk of overdose.

“The real question is when,” he said.

This is part four of a series. Catch up here with part one, part twopart three and an extra story.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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