2 Gloucester Angel Initiative Grads Talk to The Fix

By Britni de la Cretaz 09/30/16

PAARI (Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative) has gotten a lot of attention. But what actually happens after you walk in to the police station asking for help?

Steven Lesnikoski
PAARI is helping users, like Steven Lesnikoski, get back on track. photo via Walter A Margersion V

Editor's Note: This story was written prior to the news that an audit is being conducted on the Gloucester Police Department and that Police Chief Leonard Campanello has been placed on administrative leave. PAARI has also confirmed that Chief Campanello has stepped away from his position amid any investigation. Since no information has been made available about the reasons for these actions, we do not feel qualified to comment. 

In June of 2105, Steven Lesnikoski was homeless and living out of his car in San Jose, California. He was addicted to heroin, desperate, and browsing Reddit. That’s when, he says, he saw a posting from a woman in Massachusetts about a new program being run by the Gloucester Police Department that would help addicts find treatment. At the bottom of her post was an offer: if anyone wanted to get the help and needed assistance with transportation, she would provide it. “So I decided to give it a shot,” Lesnikoski says.

The Reddit poster flew Lesnikoski, 31, to Boston and drove him to Gloucester—about 45 minutes north of the city. Lesnikoski chuckles in awe as he recounts the story. “I never saw her again!” Unbeknownst to Lesnikoski, when he arrived at the Gloucester Police Department at 3:30 in the morning seeking treatment, he would become the very first participant in their Angel Initiative—a brand new program launched by Police Chief Leonard Campanello that sought to help people struggling with addiction find help, not punishment.

The premise of the program is simple: a drug user walks into the police department with or without their drugs and paraphernalia, and the department assists them in being placed into treatment. Since June 1, 2015, when the program launched, they estimate that they have placed around 500 people in treatment programs, according to John Rosenthal, co-founder of the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI).

Lesnikoski was placed into a detox in Danvers, Massachusetts and then sent to a 30-day program back in California, due to his insurance coverage. Today, Rosenthal says PAARI has partnered with 200 treatment centers around the country that provide beds and scholarships for PAARI participants so that people can get the help they need regardless of their insurance, financial status, or location.

Kylee Moriarty, 27, walked into the Gloucester Police Department with her stepfather in July 2015, looking for help. “I was tired,” she says. “I wanted to die but drugs weren’t killing me. So honestly, I knew my only hope, the only option was getting help.” Moriarty was told about the Angel Initiative through her family members, who found it while Googling treatment options. As someone who had prior experience with law enforcement that wasn’t positive, Moriarty says she was skeptical about going to the police station and worried at first that it might be a trick. But the fact that she didn’t fight it is a testament to how desperate she was, she says.

Once she got there, however, her concerns quickly dissipated. “At the time, I was so used to be treated like a leper and they welcomed me with open arms and made me feel accepted and loved. They treated me like a human being,” Moriarty recalls. “It was this profound moment in my recovery when I realized that I wasn’t just this awful person.” Moriarty credits the accepting attitude among the police officers as crucial to her willingness to follow through with the treatment. She says, “That police department showed me that even strangers cared about my wellbeing, even when I couldn’t,” and that motivated her to continue seeking out further treatment each step of the way.

Users like Kyliee Moriarty aren't given up on in PAARI.

The road to recovery for both Lesnikoski and Moriarty has not been without its bumps, however. Both relapsed after being placed in treatment. Lesnikoski says he got high the day he left the 30-day program, and Moriarty picked up while living in a halfway house after completing detox, a 30-day program, and a holding program where she waited for a bed to become available. Both of them credit their relationship with Chief Campanello for encouraging them to get back into treatment. “He never gave up on me,” Lesnikoski marvels. To this day, Moriarty says she can call or text him whenever she needs to, and he always gets in touch to congratulate her on milestones, like when she was able to see her son again.

This kind of care seems to be in line with PAARI’s ethos. Rosenthal explains that the growing trend of encouraging people suffering from addiction to present to the police department for help has done a huge amount to build trust in the community, and that’s why it’s being replicated across the country. He stresses that the point of the program is not to continue to criminalize this population by sending them to jail, but instead to see them as sick and in need of medical treatment. 

“If someone comes in for help and has a warrant, we help them clear it up so that they can get the treatment they need,” Rosenthal says. Moriarty can vouch for that. She had an open warrant when she walked into the Gloucester PD for help last July, and Chief Campanello told her that it would have to be taken care of. She requested that they arrest her on it that night because “I knew if I left, I wasn’t going to come back.” They held her in a cell for the night and sent her to detox the next day, helping her set up a court date to take care of her warrant at a later time.

In terms of success, it remains to be seen what the long-term outcome of programs like the Angel Initiative will be. However, early signs look promising. Rosenthal notes that in the six months leading up to the launch of the program, there were six overdose deaths in Gloucester. In the 15 months since the program began, there have only been two. Rosenthal says they have also seen a decrease in ancillary crime often associated with drug use, like breaking and entering and shoplifting, and PAARI has partnered with the Boston University School of Public Health to track participants.

For some people, knowing that the police are involved in getting them help may be a deterrent to seeking treatment this way. Lesnikoski hopes that stories like his will show people that it’s possible. “I’ve been in the criminal system [before] and when I saw a police department was telling people to come in and they wouldn’t arrest us, I thought it was too good to be true,” he says. He remains grateful that he gave it a chance. After his relapse in California, he returned to Massachusetts for another shot at treatment and decided to stay. He now works in community outreach and just celebrated a year of sobriety.

As for Moriarty, she’s approaching her one year anniversary, too. She currently lives in a sober house, and says she’s not sure where she’d be without the Angel Initiative. “I can never really put it into words how I feel about the Angel Program, but that name is so fitting because they are all angels to me. They supported and loved me when they didn’t even know me, and when I couldn’t even love myself.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.