Westbrook launches community-wide effort to fight substance abuse

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Those involved in Westbrook’s multi-faceted heroin abuse initiative showed optimism during a press conference Thursday, but said it will take community involvement to tackle the “growing epidemic.”

During the press conference at the Westbrook Public Safety building on Main Street, Westbrook Police Chief Janine Roberts outlined details of what the city is calling a “comprehensive community approach,” which includes the participation of some 30 organizations.

“As you can see by the many people standing with me today, this community is dedicated to making a difference,” she said at the start of the press conference. More than a dozen people representing various organizations stood behind her as she announced the initiative.

Roberts said the initiative will focus on three categories – prevention, intervention, and enforcement – all with separate work groups. She said the groups will hold regular meetings.

Chris Gorman, the director of resident-led community building for Opportunity Alliance, said Thursday that his group plans to ramp up awareness efforts. Opportunity Alliance already leads multiple programs in the city.

“This truly is an issue that is impacting every neighborhood in Westbrook,” he said. “It will require all neighbors coming together in response.”

Roberts emphasized that theme.

“This community approach takes it away from trying to enforce our way out of the epidemic. We’re never going to be able to do that,” Roberts said Monday. “We need to look at the underlying causes and prevent people from turning toward the initial use that develops into a use disorder.”

Roberts said that planning began in August, following a month when there were eight overdoses in the city. Neighboring cities in Greater Portland have also seen a similarly high number of cases.

“All luckily survived, but that caught our attention,” she said. During one day in the same month, Portland had 14 heroin overdoses, with two deaths.

Shelby Briggs, a Westbrook resident who is in long-term recovery, spoke at the press conference about the group’s intervention efforts. She asked that residents with a history of substance abuse, or in recovery, assist the various workgroups in their work.

When forming the initiative, Roberts said, she enlisted the help of multiple community partners. These include businesses such as Unum and Acadia Insurance, and organizations like Community Partnerships for Protecting Children, Maine Behavioral Healthcare and Opportunity Alliance. The list also includes state and local departments – the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office, the Department of Health and Human Services and more.

Westbrook Superintendent of Schools Marc Gousse spoke during the press conference as a representative of the prevention work group, focusing on education and awareness. Gousse said there are multiple examples throughout history where stopping substance abuse solely through enforcement and incarceration are largely ineffective.

“Community health problems like substance abuse disorders require a community response, and that is happening in Westbrook,” he said.

Throughout Greater Portland, other police departments have also introduced new programs to help with the opiate addiction problem, focusing on intervention efforts. In Portland, a new liaison position was added to what’s known as the Law Enforcement Addiction Advocacy Program, which will work to provide necessary resources to those struggling with addiction. Project Hope in Scarborough encourages those with heroin addiction to turn themselves in, with the department offering treatment options instead of criminal charges.

City Council president Brendan Rielly lauded Roberts for her effort in organization the initiative.

“The energy and courage she’s shown in bringing this group together has been phenomenal,” he said. “We on the City Council are here to do whatever we can on this.”

Roberts said the first in a planned series of public forums focused on substance use disorders will be held on Thursday, Jan. 21, at the Westbrook-Warren Congregational Church, at 6 p.m.

All Westbrook police officers now carry a “resource card,” which lists substance use hotlines and local treatment organizations. Roberts said those items fall under the intervention category.

“A lot of times, people say, ‘I don’t know where to turn,’” she said.

Starting in January, officers will also carry what’s called “Narcan,” or Naloxone, an “opioid antagonist” that can prevent overdoses if administered in a timely fashion.

The department also recently opened a neighborhood hub on Brown Street, providing a place for residents to talk with the recently hired community policing coordinator. The position is also meant to provide residents with needed resources, including those for substance use.

However, Roberts said, enforcement is still one of the categories of the initiative. The group will also work closely with the Maine Attorney General’s office and look at amending local policies.

Westbrook Police Chief Janine Roberts led an announcement Thursday morning of the city’s new heroin abuse initiative, a program that will bring together some 30 organizations to combat substance abuse. Staff photo by Andrew Rice