All roads to recovery

Editorial Notebook

December 17, 2005|By DIANE CAMPER

Under ordinary circumstances, Adam Brickner, a rabbi's son who grew up in New York, and DeLois Sparks, a black great-grandmother who spent her early years in Bethel, N.C., might never have crossed paths. But Mr. Brickner, who heads the Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, which oversees drug treatment in the city, and Ms. Sparks, founder of the drug center known as Dee's Place in East Baltimore, are both former users and equally committed to providing roads to recovery for other local drug abusers.

The two are now trying to expand the model of Dee's Place, an extended-hour walk-in center for users who may be ready to kick their habit but for whom treatment slots are not yet available. A recently announced three-year, $500,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with matching funds from four locally based foundations, will guarantee that users have almost round-the-clock access to Dee's Place and two other centers, Penn-North Community Center and Recovery in Community. These holding stations will offer a variety of activities for people seeking support when they are most vulnerable to changing their minds about changing their lives.

Private funding for these activities is important, but there is also a critical need for more public investment from the city and the state. A 2002 report funded by BSAS, showed that drug-treatment participants were about 64 percent less likely to engage in criminal activities, worked 52 percent more and earned 67 percent higher wages a year after starting treatment. Surely, using public dollars to reclaim productive citizens is a justifiable expense.

It was in 1992 that Ms. Sparks was heading home around 1 a.m. after a diabetic emergency visit to Johns Hopkins Medical Center. She encountered a dazed young woman who had been clean for 90 days but was fighting the urge to succumb to the "dope boys." Ms. Sparks invited the woman into her home and the two talked until 7 a.m. when they could get into an early morning users' meeting. The encounter persuaded Ms. Sparks of the need for all-night meetings when there are few alternatives to dealers with easy temptations. By 1996, Ms. Sparks had late-night meetings that would move around town, but it was not until 2000, when she received a grant from the France-Merrick Foundation in Towson that Dee's Place took hold on the first floor of a modest building at 2222 Jefferson Street in East Baltimore.

During the day, the center offers counseling and referrals for jobs, domestic violence and other needs. But the night hours draw the crowds. In a long rectangular room, up to 100 people at a time can participate in the continuous, confidential 12-step meetings that run from about 9 p.m. to 9 a.m., providing a place of comfort and confession for people seeking refuge (sometimes with children in tow) from the mean streets.

Ms. Sparks has been there - drinking corn liquor at age 5, trying marijuana by 17, then spending 22 years on heroin. She was lucky that her health insurance covered treatment and she has been off drugs for nearly 16 years. Mr. Brickner, who stopped using cocaine nearly 20 years ago, likes to say, "When the student is ready, the teacher arrives."

The "teachers" at Dee's Place and other drug centers are especially busy at this time of year, when holiday stresses increase the danger that even someone determined to rehabilitate could slip. Beyond the holidays, helping users who are trying to quit has become more critical. State and federal funding for treatment has dropped about $4 million since 2003, resulting in 3,300 fewer drug abusers that the city has been able to help.

That should give Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. pause as his administration prepares its budget. The state should recognize that the need to expand the capacity of centers like Dee's Place and programs like Threshold is acute. For a user on the brink of recovery, the knowing Ms. Sparks says, "If there's a place you can go, then you would choose to go to that place rather than to go get dope."

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