Updated: Mar 12
By Mark Powell
Opening the Door to Treatment
Dixon, Illinois is the kind of place that comes to mind when you think of middle America. It was President Ronald Reagan’s hometown, after all, and it still retains much of its old-time charm. This community of some 15,000 people is now the home of farms, small shops … and addiction. Addiction isn’t restricted to major cities. People in rural areas are just as susceptible as those in the Inner City. But there’s one big difference: people living in those rural areas face more barriers to getting treatment.
Dixon officials grappled with that problem for a long time. Those in addiction weren’t getting the help they needed to overcome their problem. Some didn’t know where to go; for those who did, the nearest treatment providers were an hour or more away.
“There were three overdoses in the first few months of 2015,” Dixon Police Chief Steve Howell says. “That was when we knew something had to be done.” As a result, the Safe Passage Initiative was created that September.
Drawing on inspiration from a similar program Gloucester, MA, called the Angel program, the community devised a straightforward plan. People can go to the police department to seek help. They can also turn in drugs there. Then they’re placed in treatment.
“We’ve established connections with treatment providers to help people get into treatment quicker,” program coordinator Allison White points out. “We can now get people into treatment within a day or two rather than a month or two.”
Here’s how it works. The program has an open-door policy, 24/7, where anyone suffering from addiction can ask for help. The individual’s information is gathered and a treatment provider that’s deemed the best fit is contacted. The provider does phone screening, and a volunteer, family member or police officer then takes the individual to the treatment facility.
Getting people in rural areas to ask for help isn’t easy, White says. “On average, one in six people suffers from a substance use disorder. Only 10 percent receive treatment. That number is even lower in rural communities. People just don’t just discuss addiction. They think it will never happen here. When it does, it’s often difficult to find treatment. And when they do seek it, it’s very far away. That leaves many folks feeling hopeless because they don’t know how to navigate treatment.”
Now that help is available in Dixon, people are taking advantage of it. More than 320 people have gone through the program.
Once treatment is provided, the Safe Passage Initiative team maintains contact with participants. “We stay in touch with them to make sure they’re still doing well,” police Detective Jeff Reagan says.
He thinks back to one young woman in particular. “She came in at the beginning of the program back in 2015. She successfully completed it and eventually became a recovery coach. She’s still in recovery today.”
Inspired by such success stories, Safe Passage Initiative keeps working to overcome barriers and help people change their life. “The recovery community here is small,” White says, “and if you need assistance, we’re known as a good place to get it. We want people to know that the help is there; all you have to do is ask.”
Safe Passage was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.
J. Mark Powell is an author, former network journalist, and veteran communications expert.