RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, CHRIS GENTILVISO
In her 20-plus years of service for Henrico County, Sheriff Alisa Gregory has witnessed too many painful conversations and experiences tied to substance use disorders.
In recent years, jails sadly have become de facto treatment centers for people struggling with addiction. The pandemic escalated the need for help: Roughly 2,000 detoxes are conducted in Henrico facilities each year, and at least 96 lives were lost due to overdoses in 2021, officials said. Gaps in access to and availability of services leave some families feeling hopeless.
“It is heartbreaking when you have a parent call you when they have no resources to say, ‘Please take my child back into the jail’ because they have no other options,” Gregory said. “That just shouldn’t be.”
Through years of collaborative work among local health departments, law enforcement, health care providers and key civic organizations — and a big assist from Congress — Henrico is charting a better path forward. A new 24/7 Detox and Recovery Center will change lives, diverting people away from jail and toward preventive treatment that fosters recovery.
“Substance use does not fit into a 9-to-5 service,” said Laura Totty, executive director of Henrico Area Mental Health & Developmental Services. “This is a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week need. Having the ability to respond to individuals in the moment is lifesaving.”
Construction is underway for the $12 million project, which is scheduled to open in 2024. The Detox and Recovery Center will be housed next to the county’s Eastern Government Center on Nine Mile Road. It could hold up to 30 beds, providing same-day inpatient care.
Totty added requests for proposals are in progress for architecture and engineering needs, as well as an operator. Patient referrals would come from a variety of places, including emergency departments, prescribers, recovery organizations and county agencies.
U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, jump-started financial support for the endeavor, procuring $1 million in federal funding through the House of Representatives’ new Community Project Funding program. As part of Congress’ annual appropriations, proposals had to exhibit “community support.”
Throughout her two terms, Spanberger said she has spoken with members of law enforcement not just in Henrico, but across her 10-county district, who are grappling with crimes linked to addiction. Symptoms of withdrawal associated with a substance use disorder can lead people down difficult paths.
“If they’re in that crisis zone, they can be brought here,” Spanberger told RTD Opinions. “They’re not out on the streets. They’re not falling into a place that puts them in line to deal with the criminal justice system.”
The vision for Henrico’s new center did not happen overnight. Back in 2016, local leaders saw how heroin and opioid use was affecting the community. County Manager John Vithoulkas assembled a Heroin Task Force to assess Henrico’s efforts and capacity.
By 2019, the county expanded its focus to include broader addiction concerns, establishing the Henrico County Recovery Roundtable. Two members of the Board of Supervisors, the Rev. Tyrone Nelson of the Varina District and Tommy Branin of the Three Chopt District, co-chaired nine meetings over a six-month period.
“We forged partnerships,” Nelson said. “We refined programs. We transformed processes and created new positions to combat addiction.”
Per the roundtable’s final report, the group conducted more than a dozen site visits and tours of treatment/recovery services and programs. These included sessions with the Henrico Drug Court; the county jail; CARITAS, which addresses homelessness and substance use disorders; and The McShin Foundation, which specializes in peer-to-peer supports.
The task force determined a “more comprehensive approach” was needed, making 12 recommendations toward prevention, diversion and treatment. These included expanding crisis intervention programs; maintaining an inventory of organizations and resources; and evaluating “the creation of a short-term residential facility for adults to safely detoxify.”
Totty said Virginians currently endure waitlists of several days, or even weeks, for services that might require trips to different locations. A day or two can be the difference between life and death, and access to a one-stop center can be the foundation of a journey toward recovery.
“We are determined for this center to save lives,” Nelson added. “We are focused in our efforts to enrich the lives of our community members by keeping those struggling with addiction — not criminal behavior — out of jail.”
That’s a cause every community member should get behind. Henrico’s 24/7 Detox and Recovery Center will change lives for the better — and hopefully create a strong model for services in the decades to come.