For a small state, Delaware has been dealing with a big problem. A 2017 study revealed that proportionally, the First State has one of the highest rates of drug use and overdoses in the country, ranked ninth in drug overdose deaths nationally (Hedegaard, Warner & Minio). New Castle County, which boasts 60 percent of the state’s population but also lays claim to 69 percent of Delaware’s opioid-related overdoses, is doing something about it.
In 2016, the New Castle County Police Department (NCCPD) implemented the Hero Help program modeled after the nationally accredited Angel Program—a collaborative undertaking between law enforcement and public health services to help rather than punish substance abusers facing arrest and possible incarceration. By offering increasing access to addiction assistance, NCCPD is actively reversing a 2016–2017 trend that saw a 77 percent increase in nonfatal overdoses and a 46 percent increase in fatalities related to opioid abuse.
According to Daniel Maas, the Hero Help program’s civilian care coordinator working within the NCCPD, the program is already showing great success due in large part to NCCPD’s acknowledgement that addiction is a disease and encouraging treatment whenever possible, which is paramount in slowing the curve.
“It’s a real paradigm shift,” Maas explains, who holds an executive master’s degree in public health emergency and disaster management. He was also involved in Philadelphia’s National Heroin Response Strategy prior to working with Hero Help, which brought him on board through funding from the University of Baltimore’s Combating Opioid Overdose Through Community Initiative.
“No matter how you break it down, this is an opportunity to pay it forward, to care about people, to show them kindness, and to do your best to give people an unfair advantage when so often they are without anyone,” Maas says.
The addition of Maas as a single point of contact to help HHP participants navigate treatment, the criminal justice system (if needed) and additional services such as employment, housing, transportation and mental health has been instrumental in the program’s increasingly effective reach. Currently, more than 500 individuals are officially enrolled and receiving help in some capacity.
The advantages to enrolling in Hero Help are significant. Eligible persons (being a Delaware resident is among the criteria) who seek treatment are fast-tracked—an answer to a prayer when long waitlists can result in continued usage or feelings of hopelessness and despair. As a liaison, Maas provides invaluable support and guidance within the fundamental tenets of the program, augmenting the likelihood of achieving and maintaining sobriety.
In general, HHP assists those seeking recovery from substance abuse and addiction through two primary pathways: First, a person seeking treatment can self-present to the NCCPD, a center specializing in detoxification or a local hospital; and second, police officers can refer an individual for treatment either in lieu of arrest or in an unofficial capacity (i.e., no charges pending). The purpose is twofold: to provide treatment to those who have drawn the attention of law enforcement via low-level crimes and to limit the degree of involvement with the criminal justice system.
“This program is not only about getting people connected to treatment,” Haas explains. “It’s about promoting recovery, which we see as growth. It’s about showing kindness and warmth to a stranger who may be a victim of domestic violence, trafficked or what have you. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about Hero Help.”
In October 2019, NCCPD merged its Hero Help Addiction Unit and Mental Health Unit to form the department’s Behavioral Health Unit. Through federal and state grants, this expanded unit found an invaluable partner in ChristianaCare, Delaware’s largest healthcare provider. This vital collaboration and funding enabled ChristianaCare’s Community Health team to hire six caregivers to work alongside police officers in the Behavioral Health Unit: a mental health professional, two case managers, a licensed clinician, a registered nurse and a child victim advocate.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and recent protests across the nation have highlighted the urgent need to think differently about how we address the behavioral health needs of the communities we serve, and this partnership with New Castle County Police is an example of how we are innovating to meet those needs,” states Erin Booker, vice president of community health and engagement at ChristianaCare. “Together, we will be able to provide case management, mental health support and connection to care.”
It’s no surprise that the pandemic has ratcheted up the need for community programs such as Hero Help and others that address mental health issues, agrees Erin Willis, director of business development for SUN Behavioral Delaware, an inpatient crisis stabilization facility for adults and adolescents ages 13 and older.
“We began to see an increased need for alcohol detox,” she says. “So many people felt anxious or scared about the pandemic and were self-medicating to get relief. Soon we began to see people coming to us for help with severe mental health issues, which, in some cases, included substance use.”
While COVID-19 may have temporarily altered how Hero Help and associated treatment centers operate, it has not negatively impacted the ability to provide assistance and treatment. SUN, in fact, expanded services to include no-cost telehealth assessments, adult outpatient services both in-person and via telehealth, and most recently a fully virtual intensive outpatient program.
“The pandemic did change some of our daily functions,” Willis says. “We now serve meals on the units instead of in our dining rooms, and we had to stop family visitation to reduce the risk of infection for our patients.”
SUN, an acronym for “Solving Unmet Needs,” is among the treatment facilities working with NCCPD and state health agencies to ensure that persons entering treatment through the Hero Help program will not be responsible for treatment payment and, when possible, assist in requesting scholarships for out-of-state care. When Hero Help identifies a person in need of SUN’s services, SUN’s intake department is contacted and provided with relevant information regarding the individual’s specific struggles.
“We receive and review the information to determine if we can serve that person,” Willis explains. “If we can, we’ll work with Hero Help to get them to our facility. Both of our organizations are unique programs that were built to bridge the gap in services for people struggling with mental health and substance use disorders.
“We believe that a program like Hero Help should be established in every law enforcement program in the United States,” Willis concludes. “Sometimes people who are in crisis make wrong choices, get arrested, and wind up in the criminal justice system or in jail, to their detriment. Hero Help’s softer approach to mental health and substance-use disorders means they can support people to get treatment, change their behaviors and live better.”