METHUEN — A potential reorganization that may make the Methuen Police Department’s addiction services program part of the Health and Human Services division has been tabled until new police Chief Scott McNamara can offer feedback, city councilors decided.
The proposal concerning the Community Addiction Resource Engagement Services program, known as C.A.R.E.S., was issued in June by Director of Inspectional Services Felix Zemel. It received mixed reviews from a subcommittee of city councilors set up to make recommendations on a reorganization of the Inspectional Services and Community Development departments.
When subcommittee members took their thoughts to the larger council Sept. 20, their colleagues — including Mayor Neil Perry — largely agreed that the divisions needed to be split so the city’s business and health efforts could be streamlined.
As Zemel outlined in his proposal, the inspections division would consist of building and health inspectors as it does now, while the public health sector would absorb the C.A.R.E.S. program. That program currently sits at the Police Department, employing two civilians — Colleen “Cole” Welch Caffrey and Jacque Ingersoll — who respond to addiction and substance abuse-related inquiries as they happen throughout the city.
Founded in 2014, C.A.R.E.S. is designed to offer a continuum of services to people with substance-use disorders identified through the Police Department. Welch Caffrey and Ingersoll team up with sworn officers going on overdose calls, then follow up in 24 hours, 72 hours and one week after incidents to help people secure treatment and other resources should they desire.
A possible restructuring would mean Welch Caffrey and Ingersoll would no longer work as part of the Police Department and report to Sgt. Walter Fleming, but rather would report directly to Zemel.
Phil Lahey, founder of the Circle of Hope family support group and the Merrimack Valley Prevention and Substance Abuse Project, spoke in favor of keeping C.A.R.E.S. housed where it is and expanding the program within the Police Department regardless of the reorganization.
“The Methuen Police Department was the first in our area who really started to realize that substance abuse shouldn’t be treated as a crime, but as a sickness that could be treated. C.A.R.E.S. and the police go hand-in-hand,” Lahey said. “Over the last few years, there’s been quite a few negative things said about the PD, but not when it comes to substance abuse and how they’ve handled it.”
In his appeal, Lahey suggested ways to enhance C.A.R.E.S. by hiring a bilingual community engagement specialist, recovery coaches, bringing a marketing specialist on board and considering using the skills of a grant writer.
“We have built up quite an army,” Lahey said. “You’re all pretty smart people. Find a way to build up C.A.R.E.S. and leave it where it is and where it’s done the most good.”
Councilors were in favor of continuing to base C.A.R.E.S. office in the Police Department for “safety reasons.” However, those who spoke in favor of the reorganization — including Councilor Mike Simard, a Lawrence police sergeant — said putting the program under the public health umbrella could afford C.A.R.E.S. extra grant money and exposure throughout Methuen and extend its reach across the Merrimack Valley.
“This has nothing to do with the quality of the job (Cole and Jacque are) doing,” the mayor said. “Addiction is a public health issue. They would still physically be housed at the Police Department but they’d fall under the public health organization as an overall strategy. ... This is not an attempt to ‘steal’ those people. To me it’s where they belong from a strategy standpoint. I think we need to think about where Methuen is going and how we make those two distinct departments most effective.”
Following the lead of Councilor Joel Faretra, who motioned to table the item until incoming Chief McNamara could offer input, several councilors withheld feedback.
An appointment for the city’s new community development director is set to come before the council at its meeting Monday, so that person also should be able to offer thoughts by an Oct. 24 deadline to approve the C.A.R.E.S. reorganization, council Chairman Steve Saba said.
“I’m in favor of tabling it so we can have more discussions,” Saba said.
The Methuen City Council meets at 7 p.m. Monday in the Searles Building of City Hall, 41 Pleasant St. The meeting will also be aired locally on Methuen cable TV Comcast channel 8 and Verizon channel 32. A live stream of the meeting is available at www.methuentv.org/methuen-government-tv-live-stream/.