AUDUBON, NJ— When Angel Nelke first tried to get clean, it was 2015 and she had just spent one month in jail. She was able to get into an outpatient program thanks to the help of a Gloucester Township court program , but ended up relapsing.
After violating her probation in 2017, Nelke went to jail again — this time for four months.
At the end of her time in jail, Nelke again appeared in Gloucester Township court. This time, she was able to get into a sober living house thanks to that same program. In May, Nelke said she celebrated one year of being sober.
Nelke is one of 178 defendants since 2014 have come through the Gloucester Township Municipal Court to receive treatment through the township’s Project SAVE [Substance Abuse Visionary Effort].
On Wednesday, the Camden County Board of Freeholders announced that it was committing $100,000 to launch Project SAVE as a one-year pilot program in 17 other municipalities throughout the county at the start of 2019.
“Even when I was not doing so well, the advocate they had in the courtroom always still reached out to me to see how I was doing,” Nelke said.
Project SAVE focuses on early intervention by placing licensed social service professionals in the municipal court, where they act as navigators for those suffering from opioid addiction who want to get help.
“It is most often the case when you have an addiction disorder, that you’re first experience with a court system is in municipal court,” Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli said Wednesday at Audubon Municipal Hall.
The goal of the program is to get people who may have just started using drugs into treatment if they choose to do so, Cappelli said, in addition to reducing crime.
In 2017, 227 people died from an opioid overdose, and over 50 percent of the Camden County Jail population enters with some form of addiction, officials said.
“This is intervention at its earliest stages,” U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross said. Norcross, who represents New Jersey’s 1st Congressional District, said one person a day dies from a drug overdose in his district.
“The ability to enter early … could be that tipping point, whether or not the go deeper into the addiction or they seek help,” Norcross said.
As of Monday, towns participating include Gibbsboro, Voorhees, Mt. Ephraim, Oaklyn, Barrington, Haddonfield, Audubon, Merchantville, Magnolia, Pine Hill, Pennsauken, Lawnside, Woodlyne, Gloucester City, Runnemede and Lindenwold.
Camden has yet to commit to participate.
“We just announced it, so a lot of towns have yet to have the chance to respond to it, and there’s some actions [the towns] have to take to respond to it, so it is possible that we have more,” Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez, who is also the director of human resources for the City of Camden, said a lot of the people addicted to opioids in Camden tend to be in the homeless population.
“It’s a little bit different with how we work with them, we have lots of programs to try to help them out but you have to look at the population that you have,” Rodriguez said, but added that the program is feasible for the city’s municipal courts.
“Having these preventive treatments, these diversions, is very helpful,” Rodriguez said, adding that eventually she expects all of Camden County to be participating in the program.
“We are hoping that after one year, the municipalities recognize the value of this program, that it is successful and that it continues to grow and carry forward years in advance,” Capelli said.