Grants Involve Public Health, Criminal Justice Faculty and Students

Robin Toof and Melissa Wall often partner with the Lowell PD on grants Image by Megan Moore
Robin Toof, left, and Melissa Wall of the Center for Community Research & Engagement often work with Lowell police and community agencies on grants.

By Katharine Webster

Faculty who specialize in public health, opioid use and crime research are partnering with the Lowell Police Department and other city and nonprofit agencies to better understand and address opioid addiction, thanks to two federal grants totaling nearly $1.3 million.

The university’s Center for Community Research & Engagement and faculty in criminal justice and public health will get about 10 percent of the grant money to help with research on the city’s efforts to tackle opioid overdoses and deaths. Graduate students will also be involved in the research.

The grants will focus on identifying people who misuse and abuse prescription opioids and heroin, looking for related trends, removing barriers to treatment and getting addicts and their children the services they need — instead of further involving them in the criminal justice system, says Robin Toof, co-director of the Center for Community Research & Engagement.

Toof and Wilson R. Palacios, an associate professor of criminology who specializes in substance-use disorders and the criminal justice system, lauded the progressive, public health approach of the Lowell police and the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office.

“This is the essence of good community policing,” Toof says. “The police department wants to get people the help they need instead of locking them up.”

Palacios and Toof worked with the police department to write the grants. Lowell police are taking a lead role because officers respond to every overdose.

“It’s very exciting because it’s focusing on the needs of folks in the community,” Palacios says. “What makes these grants unique is that law enforcement is bringing everybody together.”

Under one grant, teams of police, firefighters and addiction specialists from Lowell House Inc. will contact people who survive an opioid overdose and connect them to treatment. They will also ensure that the children, grandchildren and minor siblings in the homes of people who overdose get counseling and other services, since research has shown that children of opioid users are more likely to suffer from child abuse and neglect.

Under the other grant, the response teams will learn as much as they can about people who overdose, their opioid use habits, their attempts to get treatment and their previous contacts with social and health services or the criminal justice system. City health officials will also train local health care providers in how to accurately enter data into the Massachusetts Prescription Monitoring Program.

Palacios and Assoc. Prof. Melissa Morabito will help structure the community research on both grants.

U.S. Rep. Nikki Tsongas announces the federal opioid grants Image by Robin Toof
U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas announces nearly $1.3 million in federal grants to reduce opioid addiction in Lowell.

“We will be assessing relationships between individuals who have opioid-use disorders and the agencies that serve them,” Palacios says. “We want to find out what their needs are, whether their needs are being met and what could be done better.”

Toof and the center’s senior program evaluator, Melissa Wall, will help figure out which interventions are working so police and service providers can better focus their efforts and change strategies, if need be.

“We want them to be able to make data-driven decisions about intervention, prevention, treatment and enforcement,” Toof says.

Center affiliate Melissa Nemon will develop a database that brings together all the information on users, drug-related arrests, agency contacts, overdose locations and prescribing information. Faculty from the School of Public Health, including Assoc. Profs. Nicole Champagne and Leland Ackerson, will help analyze the data to identify patterns and trends. For example, the database could help police and service agencies identify potential addicts earlier and intervene before they overdose, Toof says.

“We always hear the complaint that you have to be at a certain point in your addiction to get help — and by that time, you’re even further gone,” Toof says. “These grants could help promote better policies.”

Other agencies involved in one or both grants include the Lowell Health Department, the Mental Health Association of Greater Lowell, Trinity EMS, Lowell General Hospital and the Medical Examiner’s Office.