SELECTMEN NEWS: Town To Hire Full-Time Substance Abuse Counselor To Help Residents In Need

WILMINGTON, MA — At Monday night’s Board of Selectmen Meeting, Town Manager Jeff Hull announced that the town has created a new full-time substance abuse counselor position to assist the victims of substance abuse and their families.

The substance abuse counselor, based out of the Public Safety Building, will work closely with the police to assist substance abuse victims and their families in identifying and securing necessary resources.

The Town is excited to build this new model for comprehensive, community-based substance abuse clinical services.

“This is unique. No other community is doing what we plan to do. I believe it’s going to have a lot of success,” said Wilmington Police Chief Michael Begonis. “This gives police the opportunity to respond in conjunction with the counselor, resolve any safety issues that exist, and then pass [the victim and family members] off to the counselor who can direct them to the resources they need.”

The model prioritizes both the struggling individual AND his or her family.

“For each case, we wouldn’t just be trying to get assistance to one individual. It would be the entire family, so if it’s a family five, it would be five individuals the counselor would be trying to help with proper referrals,” stressed Begonis. “It’s a health problem for the entire family… The average person in recovery stays in recovery for 10 years and probably goes through three major rehabs. That’s a very frustrating 10 years for a family.”

Wilmington decided against going with a part-time position (Billerica’s approach) or sharing a full-time position with other communities (Tewksbury’s approach).

“A regional approach is a cursory top-layer style, where the counselor would come in, set up a shingle one day a week, and have individuals come to them,” explained Begonis. “[Our plan] is a whole different model.  We’re looking to be proactive.  We’re looking to be grassroots.  When we identify a family who has an individual struggling, we want to reach out to all involved….  It’s more than just making a quick referral.  There is follow-up. There are relationships developed.”

“We hope this program will have a great amount of success and become a model for other communities.  It’s a more holistic approach,” continued Begonis.  “This isn’t about putting handcuffs on people. It’s about stemming the tide of this epidemic.

“In my estimation, a person working part-time is not going to be able to address the demand for services,” noted Town Manager Jeff Hull, who pointed out that the Veterans Department and Elderly Services Department will also receive assistance from the new counselor.

The position, budgeted at approximately $80,000 a year, will likely be filled by the end of June.  Hull provided the following timeline:

  • Using models from other communities who have created a similar position, build a position description (week of April 24)
  • Share the position description with professionals in the field to make sure we are accurately portraying the education, experience, and skills of the position (week of April 24)
  • Advertise the position to several different media to ensure the widest applicant pool possible (week of May 1)
  • Select an interview candidates based on the criteria listed in the position description (week of May 22)
  • Interview candidates using an interview panel comprised of Town staff and Wilmington Substance Coalition Members (week of May 29)
  • Select an individual who best fits the position (week of June 12)
  • Employee estimated start (week of June 26)

The Board of Selectmen unanimously supported the creation of the new position.

“I feel satisfied with the schedule. I’m frustrated it doesn’t move faster, but I realize that’s the way the process has to go,” said Selectmen Chair Mike Champoux.  “I’m encouraged that we’re taking some positive action.”

“We’re being a trailblazer with this particular position,” Champoux later added.  “Sometimes, in municipal government, I don’t know if I want to be a trailblazer… I’d rather learn from some other community’s mistakes… But we’re talking about human life, and we don’t have the time to wait.  I believe this is the most appropriate time to be a trailblazer.”

“[Helping victims of substance abuse] is probably my top priority,” said Selectman Greg Bendel. “I appreciate the chief’s proactive approach. A lot of people talk about trying to lift the stigma around addiction.  This is one way Wilmington can be in the forefront of doing that….The taxpayers have already approved this money last year…  The money is already there.  We’ve obviously identified that there’s a need.  I think this is a great approach.”

“I want to commend the board for pushing this issue forward,” added Selectman Ed Loud at his first meeting.

Selectman Mike McCoy was initially skeptical, questioning whether a full-time position was needed. McCoy was concerned about the cost of a full-time employee, complete with health insurance and additional benefits.  After the 20-minute discussion, however, McCoy announced he had changed his mind.

“This discussion was healthy and now I’m more in favor of it,” said Selectman Mike McCoy.  “I missed the boat on it and I apologize. I’m all for it.”

The decision to create a full-time substance abuse counselor position was reached after the town unsuccessfully attempted to contract a third party to provide services.  After the town’s RFP (Request For Proposal) generated no interest, Hull changed course and decided to create an in-house position.

The decision was made by Hull in consultation with Begonis, Health Director Shelly Newhouse, and Assistant Town Manager Dee Casey.  Alice Brown-LeGrand, the Coordinator of Behavioral Health and Social Support for Wilmington Public Schools, was also a fan of the move.

While hiring a full-time employee wasn’t the town’s initial preferred option, upon further research, town officials now believe it is the best option to help Wilmington residents and their families struggling with substance abuse.

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