Bergen County Launches Pilot Addiction Recovery Program

By Michael Hill

Bergen County is taking a page from Ocean County and the prosecutor, Gurbir Grewal, has launched a three-city pilot program called HART, Heroin Addiction Recovery Team. They’re inviting those addicted to heroin and other substances to walk into the police departments in Paramus, Lyndhurst and Mahwah to get help.

“Anybody can turn themselves in at one of these three police stations. We’ll provide assistance to get them into rehabilitation. They won’t be arrested. They can turn over any drugs they may have without fear of arrest. Even if they decide, after talking to a counselor that they don’t want to participate in the program there will still be no arrests. The concept is to get them in the door, get them introduced to the counseling and that really is the key to solving the problem. It’s not going to be done through the courts,” said Mahwah Police Chief James Batelli.

If those walk-ins fear going to jail instead of getting a bed because they have warrant issues…

“We’ll call that agency where the warrant is issued,” Batelli said. “And if possible, we’ll try and mitigate that warrant, push the court date back, take one less stress off them so they can concentrate on the rehabilitation. It’s not a get out of jail free card, we’re not going to dismiss the warrant. And if it’s a serious violation, they may have to address it before going to rehab. But a lot of these offenders have low level failure to appear, minor possession charges. Those we can work with.”

In Bergen County, Mahwah ranks near the top in the use of naloxone — the drug to reverse heroin overdoses.

“Sadly, it’s not a statistic we’re proud of. We’re third in Bergen County — which is 70 municipalities — and third in the deployment of Narcan, eighth in the number of overdoses,” said Batelli.

Mahwah police say they’re going a step or two further in helping addicts. One, they’re about to have their officers train on how to talk to addicts out on the street. And the other is in the program having a counselor, an addiction recovery specialist, available 24/7.

“I think this initiative is excellent and there is a great need in the community for it,” said Arms Acres Behavioral Services Regional Coordinator Anna Verbraak.

Arms Acres is among the treatment facilities helping Mahwah Police work through the challenges of getting beds for walk-ins, preparing for a big influx.

“We have anticipated that and we’ve actually increased our bed capacity by 10 percent so that we’re able to accommodate the strong rise in referrals,” Verbraak said.

Prosecutor Grewal says HART has a huge treatment community buy-in and already has a handful of success stories. Batelli says a common theme among addicts is where to go for help, despite the governor’s nearly $3 million ReachNJ campaign.

“The state of New Jersey, they’ve let their residents down and not addressed this problem in a timely fashion. Having flashy commercials, having a website to go to is not going to solve or address the issue. What we need are counselors, professional counselors, licensed clinical social workers on site to talk to people who have an addiction problem,” Batelli said.

The anti-addiction program in Mahwah will run for six months before the Bergen County prosecutor decides whether to expand it.