Tricks or Treatment

Breaking the cycle of addiction and crime.

The Chrysalis Project is the latest in a long line of innovative city programs designed to deal more effectively with miscreants, and at the same time de-clutter courtrooms and free up jail space. Denver was the first jurisdiction in the country to devote a courtroom to domestic-violence restraining orders, and its drug court has won national attention for its efforts to better handle addiction-related crimes.

Addicted prostitutes repeat an endless cycle on Colfax. First they turn tricks to get the drugs; then they need the drugs to turn the tricks. Chrysalis is designed to break that cycle, taking drug- and alcohol-addicted prostitutes who've been arrested at least three times and offering them treatment instead of jail time. The treatment is provided by the Empowerment Program, a nonprofit that's been helping women for twenty years. Empowerment executive director Carol Lease worked with Adam Brickner, then the director of Denver's Office of Drug Strategy, to create the Chrysalis plan. "It came about because there was a movement in the community," Brickner remembers. "The vision of this task force was simple, but laden with potential: Prevention works, treatment is effective, recovery happens."

"It's important that Adam understood that drug treatment, mental-health treatment and trauma treatment needed to be delivered to women in prostitution all at the same time," Lease says. "He got that. A lot of people don't get that."

He not only got it, but he helped secure a three-year grant that will put $150,000 into Chrysalis every year.

Five years ago, Brickner was working as a drug-court coordinator when former mayor Wellington Webb created the Office of Drug Strategy and posted a job for its director. Brickner jumped at the chance. Although the office's annual budget is only $75,000, he was able to leverage it by bringing in between $2 million and $3 million each year in grants aimed at improving prevention and treatment of addictions. That's compared to the $1.5 billion a year that substance abuse costs Denver residents, according to the city.

"I think Adam did a good job, given the fact that this is an area, in many cases, that people don't like to fund," Webb says.

One of Brickner's goals was to reach people before they could become addicts. His tools included the Social Norms Marketing Campaign, which surveyed students at four Denver high schools -- Thomas Jefferson, East, George Washington and Manual -- and determined that a majority of students were not using drugs, alcohol and tobacco on a regular basis. "Expectations are starting to come into line with reality, which is the first step to actually changing behaviors," he says. "You have to change your attitude about something before you can change behaviors."

Ailala Trujillo, regional prevention consultant at OMNI Research and Training, is helping evaluate the research. "In general, we're finding that students' behavior is much, much better -- as in most students aren't smoking tobacco, aren't drinking alcohol and aren't using drugs," she says. "Everybody thinks that everybody's doing it, but the reality is that most people aren't."

Brickner's office also helped establish CASASTART (Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse Striving to Achieve Rewarding Tomorrows), a program that put more counselors in four Denver elementary schools and four middle schools, working with students who use drugs, are truant or engage in violent activity.

For addicts, the office focused on intervention and treatment programs that implemented new approaches to smooth the transition back into the community from jail -- or to keep addicts out of jail altogether. To set up these programs, Brickner brought many people in the community together, from judges to therapists to doctors. "In the emergency department, talking to someone about their cut arm is a lot different than talking to them about substance abuse," says Dr. Kerry Broderick of Denver Health's emergency room. Broderick helped develop a three-hour workshop to train nurses, doctors, residents, health-care techs, social workers and psychiatric workers in a brief intervention technique. That program has since spun off from the city's drug office and has its own funding source.

And Brickner got one more program under way: STAR (Starting Transition and Recovery), which helps steer young addicts away from homelessness and into a seventeen-unit apartment complex for treatment and shelter. "Adam has been an incredible advocate for homeless and runaway youth in Denver and is very much behind creating substance-abuse treatment programs for this population," says Jamie Van Leeuwen, director of development and public affairs for Urban Peak, a shelter for homeless and runaway youth. In three years, more than eighty young people have moved through STAR.

And now Brickner is moving on, to Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, Inc., a quasi-governmental agency -- with a staff of fifty and $50 million in resources -- that provides prevention and treatment for residents of that city.

"Having Adam Brickner there, and the knowledge he gained here in Denver, they'll be well served," concludes Webb.

 
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