Bergen County Tackles Heroin Addiction

By Michael Hill

You can call them decks of death — 1,450 $5 bags of heroin and cash Bergen County Police seized from a car late Thursday crossing Route 46 bound for New York City.

“Hopefully one deck at a time we can make a difference,” said Bergen County Police Officer Robert Dubuoe.

Patty Trava is a pillar of prevention who warns the world about heroin addiction after she lost her bipolar 21-year-old daughter Caitlin to an overdose in February.

“I’m also very passionate and concerned about the next generation,” she said.

“Quite frankly, he looked like he was near dead,” said Mahwah Police Department Officer William Hunt.

That’s what Hunt and his partner found in a grocery store restroom where they used the overdose-reversing drug Narcan to save a man’s life.

“This is a guy who has a full-time job and he actually has a pretty decent job and he was on his way home from work, just got off a commuter bus in the area and he was on his way home and he stopped of at a shopping center and decided to shoot up in the bathroom,” Hunt said.

Bergen County has had 15 Narcan saves this year of heroin addicts who have overdose this year. It’s on pace for 40 OD deaths this year. That’s double last year.

For law enforcers, a radical transformation has begun.

“I am convinced that at this time working at this point in time having law enforcement back away from just trying to arrest our way out of this, which is impossible, and to become part of and in collaboration with health care workers, social workers, addiction specialists,” said Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli.

Molinelli announced he’s working on a municipal court to handle nearly 200 cases of first-time offending heroin possessors and users, and through conditional discharge of their cases, to order them to in-patient treatment, monitoring and social services for two to three years.

Ellen Elias is advising the prosecutor.

“And so here we are. It’s a pivotal place, to give them services so maybe they don’t have to return to the lifestyle they were in,” said Elias, vice president of prevention and community services for Children’s Aid and Family Services.

Patrick Hughes oversees voluntary drug treatment at the Bergen County Jail.

“I think people are beginning to understand that this revolving door is inhumane and also not cost effective,” said Hughes, director of behavioral health services for the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office.

Sue Marchese-Debiak is also advising the prosecutor. She operates long-term care at Spring House.

“The length of stay is directly related to the length of ongoing recovery, especially for women’s treatment,” she said.

Debiak says former addict Nira Skelton-Jackson is proof. Nira’s now certified to manage cases. Part of the challenge as she sees it now: “Heroin just so happen in the last probably five years has become too affordable if that makes sense.”

Affordable, accessible and addictive in a county considered one of New Jersey’s most affluent. And trying a different approach.