Burlington County has been given a $100,000 grant from the state Department of Health to form an overdose fatality review team as part of its continuing efforts to combat substance use disorder.

Shirla Simpson, Burlington County's Human Services director, said the team will perform confidential reviews of overdose deaths in the county and the circumstances and contributing causes around deaths of those being called "descendants."

The goal is to learn more about the descendant's life and history prior to their death.

"The important part is their attempts at recovery, their treatment and substance abuse, possible behavioral health issues, any criminal history, criminal justice interactions, any medical issues," said Simpson.

The review team will be overseen by the Burlington County Department of Human Services and the county Department of Health but will include representatives from other agencies and organizations such as the county Medical Examiner's Office, Prosecutor's Office, Sheriff's Department and Department of Corrections; New Jersey Treatment Incentive Program, Oaks Integrated Care, Virtua Health, Legacy Treatment Services, Solstice Counseling and Wellness Centers and Beacon of Hope.

Simpson said to have these partners is important because the county needs their input so they can have in-depth conversations about the descendant and their life.

If there is a descendant in their 20s and 30s, Simpson said the team will dive back into their high school years to talk about their history of substance abuse and when possibly their behavioral issues started.

The hope is to look at all the cases of the descendants and come up with ideas and goals for the county, she said. Policy changes may be made going forward. Maybe changes can be made to treatment providers, possibly add some treatments into the system, as well.

It's really to look at the gaps in the system and the changes that need to be made in the county so there can be a decrease in usage of opioids and a decrease in the number of overdose deaths, said Simpson.

There were 149 suspected overdose deaths in 2020 in Burlington County, she said. That's down from 164 in 2019. Simpson said the county has made some big attempts to slow the number of overdose deaths with other new services offered.

There is the Hope One vehicle, which is a partnership between the county departments of Health and Human Services and the Sheriff's Office. The Hope One vehicle goes out into the communities and helps link residents with recovery specialists from Merryville Treatment Center. There are also peer specialists on board. They help train residents in the communities on how to administer Narcan or naloxone, which is designed to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose.

The Hope One vehicle is driven by two sheriff's officers who help the staff. The vehicle is parked in certain places within the county and rotated through the county every Tuesday. Anyone can walk up to the vehicle, ask for help. They will be linked to substance abuse treatment including in-patient treatment right there on the spot.

The Burlington County Prosecutor's Office also runs Operation Helping Hand and Straight to Treatment programs, which both work with local police departments to help people struggling with addiction, enter treatment.

Simpson said the county also launched last year, The Recovery Center, within the county human services building. That is a one-stop location for individuals to obtain peer support. Meetings can be held there for Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous too.

She hopes by finding out the stories behind a descendant's overdose death, the county can engage with families so they can get their support as part of the review team's understanding how their losses can help others.

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