Another tool for courts, police to combat drug abuse

As abuse of heroin and other illegal drugs continues to rise across Indiana, behavioral experts are launching new efforts to collaborate with courts and law enforcement in the fight against drug abuse.

Through Recovery of Indiana, a behavioral health program aimed at reducing drug abuse rates across the state, the Front Door Opiate Reduction Initiative is launching in new locations in Indiana to give courts and law enforcement officers additional options besides jail time for drug offenders struggling with serious addictions.

The Front Door Initiative in Indiana is modeled on a program based in Dayton, Ohio, said Keith Vukasinovich, Recovery of Indiana CEO. Vukasinovich discussed the burgeoning program during Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s annual Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Symposium Oct. 13.

The initiative started in Dayton, but was actually developed in Indiana with the help of Zoeller’s office, Vukasinovich said. In addition to the Ohio location, the Front Door Initiative is in Richmond and will soon expand to Fort Wayne. Choosing Richmond as a launching pad for the Indiana version of the initiative makes sense, he said, because there is a clear connection between drug dealers in Dayton and drug users in Richmond.

Through the initiative, police officers are permitted to decide if a drug offender should be placed in jail or should be taken to a treatment facility to get help for their addiction. The program doesn’t relieve officers of their duty to uphold the law, Vukasinovich said, but instead allows them to use their professional discretion to decide what is in the best interest of the offender.

drugs-sidebar.gif“If a person has an outstanding warrant, they’re going to jail if it’s a felony,” he said.

If an officer decides treatment is the better option for an offender, that person will be referred to either a standard treatment facility or a sober house if they need help at odd hours of the day. So far, about 75 percent of all referrals to the initiative come from law enforcement officers after an arrest or from the courts, compared to 90 percent of self-referrals just a few years ago, Vukasinovich said.

Once part of the Front Door Initiative, drug offenders begin what Vukasinovich referred to as a community recovery program. They are given resources that will help them succeed both during their in-house treatment and when they are discharged. Often, drug abusers who return to their normal routines are left without any sort of support network or resources to ensure they stay clean, which leads to repeat offenses and more time in the judicial system, he said.

Being part of the Front Door Initiative does not necessarily excuse a drug offender from all consequences of the legal process, Vukasinovich said. The program also trains its clinicians to conduct risk assessments on offenders receiving treatment, and those risk assessments are tacked onto the evaluations to help judges as they consider offenders’ possible sentences.

The goal is to offer courts relevant data that can make the decision-making process easier, Vukasinovich said. To get that data, he said the program is focused on evidence-based practices, such as cognitive behavioral interventions and the related training, to ensure clinicians have all the tools they need to accurately assess a drug offender’s progress.

Part of the success of the Front Door Initiative in the future will be the ability of the court system to communicate with outside entities, such as clinicians, said Vukasinovich, a former juvenile court employee.

“We (courts) are an island that doesn’t talk much to other islands, or even other departments on the island,” he said.

While some of the burden of remedying that communication problem will lie with the court system itself, Vukasinovich said he encourages clinicians in the Front Door Initiative to make themselves visibly available to the court system so that judges, lawyers and other legal professionals will begin to recognize them as helpful resources.

As the Front Door Initiative slowly rolls out in Indiana, Vukasinovich said the next step is for the organization to submit its application to the Indiana Department of Mental Health and Addiction for a license. Additionally, Vukasinovich said he also hopes to roll out a prisoner re-entry program to help incarcerated drug offenders find the resources they need to successfully return to normal life without becoming repeat offenders.•

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