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A Way Out

Updated: Jan 14, 2022

When Recovery is the Better Option

For people struggling with addiction in Lake County, Illinois, time wasn’t on their side. Nestled on the shores of Lake Michigan, this populous Midwestern county faced two serious problems. It was taking way too long for people who were ready to receive help to get into treatment. And a growing number of them were dying as a result of that long delay. For a decade, local officials watched helplessly as addiction-related issues went from bad to worse, to worse still.

They decided to try a different approach in 2016. They launched A Way Out on June 1 that year. This law enforcement-assisted deflection program was designed to fast-track individuals with substance use disorders into treatment. “Law enforcement frequently comes into contact with people suffering from substance use disorders,” says Mundelein Police Chief Eric Guenther of the Lake County Police Department. “Other than hospital emergency rooms, police stations are the only community facility that’s open 24/7. So why shouldn’t we be available for people who need help? Whether it’s 2:00 in the afternoon or 2:00 in the morning, we don’t want to miss an opportunity to get someone into treatment when they’re ready for it.”

The program partners with 13 local agencies. Someone can show up at a police station at any time and say, “I need help.” Nearly 80 percent of the self-referrals are struggling with opioid addiction.

Here’s how it works. Once a person requests help at a participating police department, a police officer calls a special 24-hour crisis line at the Lake County Health Department, which then performs a screening. They check for drug usage, underlying medical conditions, any co-presenting mental health issues, then determine what type of care (outpatient or inpatient) is needed. Local hospitals also fast-track individuals needing medical attention before entering treatment. Transportation to the treatment facility is available and a warm handoff is made.

Although it’s been operating for a short time, A Way Out is seeing encouraging results. “While people are still dying from overdoses and the death rate is increasing, it’s rising at a slower pace,” says Bill Gentes, executive director of the Lake County Opioid Initiative. “There were 80 deaths in 2017, 98 in 2018, and we’re on track for the same number this year. The fact that progress is coming so slowly shows you just how serious the problem is here.”

There’s no limit to how many times a person can go through the program. Chief Guenther says one person has used it eight times. He remembers a mother who brought in her son for help. “This was maybe his fourth or fifth try at recovery. We helped him into treatment, and that time it stuck. Adam has been in recovery for two years now and recently opened his own business in Chicago.”

People are accepted regardless of what substance they’re seeking to overcome. There are no residency requirements for participation, either. One woman brought her son to Lake County from Nashville, Tennessee where the waitlist was too long. Another person from Mississippi showed up at a police station on Christmas Eve seeking assistance, in keeping with the promise to give help no matter when it is sought.

A Way Out was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.


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