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Episode 7 of 'Eyes On The Jersey Shore' with special guests, Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer and Ocean County Assistant Prosecutor Renee White.

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Ocean County had the 3rd most suspected drug overdose deaths in the state of New Jersey in 2020 out of the 21 counties with 224, trailing only Essex County and Camden County and have 20 more than Middlesex County, which is 4th on the list, according to State Figures.

2020 is the 3rd time since 2013, that Ocean County has had more than 200 overdose deaths in a single year.

2013: 154, 2014: 132, 2015: 157, 2016: 253, 2017: 189, 2018: 217, 2019: 204.

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Since becoming the Prosecutor in Ocean County in late 2018, Bradley Billhimer and his team have made addressing the opioid and substance abuse epidemic a priority to address the poison spreading into community neighborhoods and find ways to help people up from their personal doldrums and into a new, clean reality.

His key tool back then and now is centered around education...educating the public, educating law enforcement and educating you wherever you are so we can all come together and stop drugs from entering our communities and be supportive to those struggling in the throngs of addiction and not belittling them.

There are two new programs underway here in 2021, the First Step program and the Michael Camillus Project, both with ties to previous initiatives that have now become the next chapter in the fight against the epidemic.

The Blue HOPE program allows those struggling with substance use disorder to turn themselves into police and possible avoid charges in exchange for treatment.

Blue Hope is not an automatic linkage to detox or inpatient services but serves as an entry point for people in need of services and/or treatment.

Participants in the program will start with linkage to the appropriate level of treatment such as detoxification, residential, or outpatient and will receive 12 weeks of follow up calls from their provider/licensed agency so further guidance and support can be provided.

The participant will also have the option to voluntarily sign up for recovery case management services which would include face to face and telephone calls for support.

Operation Helping Hand allows defendants charged with controlled dangerous substance related offenses, such as minor possessory and paraphernalia type offenses, to be screened for potential substance abuse disorder to determine what level of a treatment program they may need.

Residents are provided with services and access to treatment similar to the design of Blue Hope but taking place in the municipal court itself.

It's a voluntary program and an option for defendants, not a mandated choice, but an intervening helping hand to steer them away from future trouble.

The option for these individuals in some cases is go to rehab or go to jail and perhaps pay a fine as well.

The program took off in early 2020 in the Toms River Municipal Court and also went into Berkeley Township as well.

"It was going swimmingly well in Toms River Municipal Court and then we expanded it into Berkeley and then the Covid-19 pandemic hit and it kind of thwarted our progress," Billhimer tells Townsquare Media News.

The Blue Hart Program has also slowed down because of lower foot traffic in police stations.

This led them to find new ways to continue these programs efforts during the pandemic by developing the First Step Program which falls under Operation Helping Hand which came to be thanks to a grant from the New Jersey Attorney General's Office and to the other counties as well.

The funding is needed to get these kinds of programs off the ground and truly help make a difference.

"We're all operating on a limited budget while trying to do more with the same money every year," Billhimer said.

The grant they've just received open the doors for the First Step Program to be born in Lacey Township.

"We have individuals that have overdosed in Lacey Township who are then connected or linked immediately with a clinician and case management from one of our community based agencies and in this case it's Ocean Mental Health Services who has been working hard to link overdose victims and their family members with services," Ocean County Assistant Prosecutor, Renee White, who is the administer of this program, tells Townsquare Media News. "

The goal is to identify people with a substance abuse disorder, White explains, and then help them find services and treatment to get better.

Little Egg Harbor is the next town who could see this program soon be implemented.

The Michael-Camillus Project comes from St. Michael the Archangel who is also the patron saint of police and St. Camillus who is the patron saint of the sick.

It's a program where police officers of all ranks can earn 18-credits and obtain a certificate of completion in addiction studies from Ocean County College where they can also earn, through the program, the chance to sit for a state board exam and perform clinical hours in order to receive their Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor designation.

"It's a mechanism to fight the opioid epidemic from inside-out in the sense that we can help police officers gain the education they need to help in their departments and in their communities," Billhimer said.

There are 14 members of law enforcement currently in the program which runs about a year that leads to a CADC designation in New Jersey.

"It's sort of an inoculation with this information so that they can come back to their departments and deliver this critical information and create a buy-in among other officers to fight stigma and to help people that need it," White said. "I think officers that are in this program will be able to engage better with individuals in the community when they're on the street, on patrol and the hope is that these officers and this pilot project can weave into our other Operation Helping Hand programs like First Step so that when there is an overdose the highest trained officer we have in one of these towns can then respond with a clinician or a case manager to really give them the best opportunity to get well."

You can learn more about these programs and much more on the 7th episode of 'Eyes On The Jersey Shore'....

You can follow Vin Ebenau on Twitter and Instagram and email news tips to vin.ebenau@townsquaremedia.com.

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