One week with Erie County's new approach to drug addiction

Posted at 11:04 AM, Aug 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-08 18:24:43-04

It's been one week since Erie County started to take a different approach to people struggling with opiate addiction.  A new hotline went live Monday, August 1st, that helps addicts find help and teaches people how they can support loved ones.

The hotline number is 831-7007.  In one week, operators have fielded 184 calls. Crisis Services runs the hotline and officials tell 7 Eyewitness News that most of the calls concern heroin addiction.

It's already having some early success.  Jennifer Giambra-Ort trains phone operators for Crisis Services and she's been filling in on the line this week.  She knows first-hand the impact the service is having on people in Erie County.

"A family member called for their child and felt relieved that there was something out there that their child could go to the same day," she said.  "They had tried different types of counseling and different types of treatments and it wasn't working."

Giambra-Ort helped that family get in touch with the help they needed.  She says most of the people seeking help are long-term drug abusers.

"It's not that they just started a few months ago," she explained.  "The individuals I've been speaking with have three, four, five, six years of active, everyday use."

The hotline is also dealing with a staffing shortage.  Other Crisis Services counselors have been running the phone line without any trouble.  But executive director Jessica Pirro says they need to fill the positions soon.

"We feel we can do this for a short period of time," she said.  "We're going to continue to actively recruit to fill the other positions so we can strike a balance of the demand of the multiple hotlines that are here at Crisis Services."

The addiction hotline needs three additional full-time counselors and a dedicated supervisor.

Local police departments are also changing tone when it comes to drug addiction. Under the Rapid Evolution for Appropriate Placement (REAP) Program, participating agencies won't charge people struggling with addiction, so long as they don't have an outstanding warrant, if they walk into a police station and ask for help finding treatment.

There are six local agencies that are participating in the program right now:  Buffalo, Amherst, East Aurora, Niagara Falls, Erie County Sheriff's Office and Town of Tonawanda.

Both Crisis Services and Erie county say they don't know of anybody taking part in the REAP Program yet.

According to the Erie County Department of Health, 230 people have died from confirmed or suspected opiate overdoses in 2016.