New Jersey's 25th Legislative District

Senator Anthony M. Bucco

Senator Anthony M. Bucco

Editorial: Without Reforms, State-Supported Residential Drug Treatment for Kids Will Vanish

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The following editorial by Anthony M. Bucco and James P. Curtin was published by on December 19, 2019:

New Jersey is ground zero for an opioid epidemic that is taking the lives of our children and young adults at a furious pace. Last year, more than 3,100 lives were lost to this crisis, which did not discriminate by race, wealth, or zip code. It’s hitting communities and children in every corner of the Garden State.

In this editorial, Sen. Tony Bucco and James Curtin call for action by lawmakers to prevent the loss of New Jersey’s remaining state-funded residential treatment facilities for children with substance use disorders. (©iStock)

Given the toll this epidemic has already taken, you might think the state would be working quickly to expand in-patient, residential treatment programs that have proven to be effective in helping to address addiction in our youth, where substance use often begins.

Unfortunately, the opposite is the case, as recent reports by The Star-Ledger have shown. Instead of adding beds and expanding access to residential facilities that are licensed, funded, and regulated by the state for the treatment of adolescents suffering from substance use disorders, these dedicated treatment centers for children are rapidly going out of business across New Jersey.

As recently as five years ago, New Jersey had seven residential treatment centers that served adolescents with substance use disorders. Many of these facilities had been in operation for decades.

In 2014, however, the state changed how it licensed, funded, and contracted with those adolescent treatment centers. While those changes were well-intentioned, they have had unfortunate consequences.

As a result, only two of those seven facilities remain open today. The others have closed or repurposed approximately 300 beds, with only 85 beds in state-funded treatment centers dedicated to children remaining.

Unless something is done soon, we risk additional losses. That would be catastrophic for our state’s children and their families.

These facilities specialize in the treatment of children who are 18 years of age and younger. We have watched as shrinking capacity in the youth residential treatment system is leading to a surge of admissions in the adult system.

According to statistics provided by the State of New Jersey, 27,000 residents between the ages of 18 and 29 were admitted to a state licensed and funded treatment center in 2018. Another 16,000 were admitted in the first seven months of this year.

In most cases, those are adults who began experimenting with dangerous or addictive substances in adolescence and were never directed to effective treatment at a young age.

To be fair, there is a debate among government policymakers about treatment at home versus treatment at a residential facility.

We emphatically believe that people should be treated in the least restrictive environment that will allow for effective treatment, because our focus is always on producing the best results for the recovering person.

In many cases, the strategy rolled out by the New Jersey Department of Children and Families to keep kids at home with their parents has proven to be tremendously effective.

It must be acknowledged, however, that treatment at home isn’t effective for teens whose home environments contributed to their substance use disorders. We also must recognize that residential programs geared toward adults can be substantially less effective in treating children.

That’s why we believe the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s (ASAM) Patient Placement Criteria, which is the only medically accepted method for determining the appropriate level of care for someone with a substance use disorder, should be used to guide a patient’s treatment.

We are greatly concerned that the state has directed organizations to disregard ASAM’s guidelines, which are the only field accepted admission criteria when it comes to assessing the needs of kids.

We know that admitting a patient to a lower or higher level of care than is medically necessary almost guarantees a negative outcome, amplifying our concerns that New Jersey’s children are quickly losing access to a full spectrum of treatment options tailored to their needs.

Absent the direction to do otherwise, many in state government continue to defend the harmful policies that have led to the closure of most of New Jersey’s youth treatment centers. Unless the Murphy Administration quickly reverses from the flawed policy it inherited, we’ll suffer additional losses.

With the opioid crisis raging across the Garden State, we don’t believe that’s something Gov. Phil Murphy wants to happen on his watch, and it’s certainly not something parents desperate for positive outcomes can afford.

We urge the governor and legislative leaders to work with us to find a solution to this problem. The health committees in the Senate and General Assembly can start by holding hearings to understand the scope of the problem, listen to the recommendations of experts, and develop a course of action.

With our children’s lives at stake, there’s no time to waste.

State Senator Anthony M. Bucco represents the 25th Legislative District. He serves on the Senate Health, Human Services & Senior Citizens Committee. He was a co-founder of Daytop New Jersey, a not-for-profit drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for adolescents, located in Mendham.

James P. Curtin is the president and CEO of Daytop New Jersey. He has served on the Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Task Force and the State of New Jersey’s Integrated Health Advisory Panel.

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