Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood received a Dogwood Award in October from Attorney General Josh Stein for his efforts in responding to the opioid epidemic in Orange County.
Blackwood was recognized specifically for the Coordinated Opioid Overdose Reduction Effort. This program was spearheaded by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, with collaboration from the Criminal Justice Resource Department, Orange County Emergency Management Services, Freedom House and local police departments.
Blackwood said the Dogwood is given to people who have been involved in programs or initiatives that have served the entire state or their local community in a specific way.
“COORE is a collaborative initiative designed to create a comprehensive and therapeutic approach to address the opioid epidemic and its collateral effects to the community,” Blackwood said.
COORE is designed with a three-pronged approach, Blackwood said.
The first prong is allowing people to come to the sheriff’s office to ask for help with their addiction.
Blackwood said the sheriff’s office recognized early on that opioid addiction is not a problem that can be dealt with by arresting people. So if someone walks into the office asking for help, Blackwood connects that person with a member of the Criminal Justice Resource Department.
“One of the philosophies that I’ve tried to embrace is that of a warm handoff,” Blackwood said. “If I tell you to come here and that I’m going to help you, I’m not going to direct you to somebody else. I’m going to walk with you.”
Blackwood connects people who come into the sheriff’s department with Allison Zirkel, the assessment specialist at the CJRD. Zirkel, a licensed clinical social worker and licensed clinical addiction specialist, helps direct people toward the treatment they need.
“It’s really hard to navigate our system without a bit of guidance,” Zirkel said. “There are a lot of different eligibility criteria for different programs depending on if you’re actively using or if you haven’t used substances for a short time but are trying to maintain your recovery.”
Caitlin Fenhagen, criminal justice resource director at CJRD, said it’s important for people to understand that the sheriff’s office supports COORE — but when people come in for help, they are referred to clinicians who are separate and apart from the office.
“It is going to take time for people to develop trust that, ‘OK, I can walk into a law enforcement agency and get help,’ but I think the more opportunities we give people to seek help, the better,” Fenhagen said.
If there is a treatment center that best suits the needs of a person in Orange County, but it is located in another part of the state or country, Blackwood said he has reached out to people in the community who are capable of providing the financial help needed.
The second part of the approach is responding to calls where Naloxone, a medication that can treat narcotic overdose in an emergency situation, has to be administered to reverse an overdose.
Blackwood said the Orange County Emergency Services department added a community paramedic position. When the community paramedic responds to an overdose, they give a flyer with information about COORE. The community paramedic also follows up with these individuals, because Blackwood said he has found that people who are subject to chemical dependency that have an overdose are the most receptive to ask for help.
The third prong comes from the law enforcement aspect of dealing with the opioid crisis, which is following up on where the drugs are coming from.
Blackwood said a lot of the cases he’s seen have been from death by distribution. If officers can find evidence of a link between the sale of a narcotic with the individual who overdosed, Blackwood said there is an opportunity to make an arrest on death by distribution.
Blackwood said COORE was replicated from other programs in other counties throughout the state in other sheriff’s offices. He said he tries to remind people that every family can be touched by opioid addiction.
“You’ve got to really help those people feel comfortable about what they’re doing,” Blackwood said. “They’re often very apprehensive because the level of trust is not there, especially when you’re dealing with somebody wearing a badge and a gun.”
Blackwood said it benefits the sheriff that people know the office is willing to do the program.
“It speaks to the commitment that I as a sheriff am making to this county and the people that live here that I’m not going to judge you if you’ve got a problem,” Blackwood said.
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