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Camden County inpatient drug-treatment clinic marks its first year

Before he heads to his mechanic's job in Runnemede, Chris Carbone often sits on the Camden waterfront with his iPod and journal in hand.

Chris Carbone, 28, completed inpatient treatment at the Volunteers of America facility. (Claudia Vargas / Staff)
Chris Carbone, 28, completed inpatient treatment at the Volunteers of America facility. (Claudia Vargas / Staff)Read more

Before he heads to his mechanic's job in Runnemede, Chris Carbone often sits on the Camden waterfront with his iPod and journal in hand.

A former narcotics dealer with a criminal record, Carbone used to ply his trade in the area just north of where he jots down his thoughts.

What draws him back is the Volunteers of America Delaware Valley Addiction Treatment Center, near Liberty Street and Broadway, a known drug and prostitution area.

Carbone, 28, is a recent graduate of the center, which celebrated its first anniversary in May. He is one of nearly 400 addicts admitted there so far.

The center had a bumpy start, acknowledge its administrators.

"Everything that could go wrong did go wrong," said VOA Delaware Valley president Daniel L. Lombardo. When the first residential client enrolled in July, the facility realized it had forgotten to set up food service.

Since then, the staff has jelled, says Nancy Hughes, the center's director. And the progress of recovering addicts such as Carbone illustrates the impact the residential and outpatient facility has had.

The initial challenge for addicts, beyond enrollment, is to complete a program, say treatment experts. Fifty-eight percent of inpatients and 32 percent of clients undergoing intensive outpatient therapy at the center have stayed to the end - rates typical of programs in the state, according to Raquel Mazon Jeffers, director of addiction services for the New Jersey Department of Human Services.

The state is trying to improve retention rates for outpatients, Jeffers said. Neither the state nor the Camden center tracks the progress of individuals after treatment.

Though graduating is an indicator of long-term success, recovering drug users struggle to maintain a sober and noncriminal lifestyle once they live independently, Jeffers said.

"Addiction is a chronic disease," Jeffers said. Relapse is common and Camden's center already has seen repeat clients. The goal, she said, is for graduates to recognize symptoms early and seek immediate help.

Except for visits to the waterfront promenade and the center for outpatient care, Carbone steers clear of Camden. He tries to avoid temptation.

"I have thoughts, but I don't let them turn into actions," he said.

The Camden native, who moved around the South Jersey suburbs as a youth, witnessed drug use as a child. His late mother was a drug addict who also sold heroin, he says.

After being kicked out of Collingswood High School in his sophomore year for fighting, Carbone held a variety of jobs, from a stint at a McDonald's to doing electrical work in Philadelphia.

Then, he said, "I got greedy with money" and started to sell drugs on the side.

Carbone lived in North Camden and went from selling on the corner to bagging heroin and pills and delivering them personally.

It wasn't until he took Percocet for a shoulder injury, he says, that he decided to try heroin and cocaine himself.

While high, Carbone robbed people and got into fights. With each conviction, he served from six to nine months in jail. In September, drug court ordered him to the new VOA treatment center.

The center has an outpatient program for clients who visit three times weekly for classes, treatment, and other services. But the residential program in which Carbone enrolled is its cornerstone.

There is a short waiting list for admission to the men's 48-bed program, and nearly all of the 24 slots for women are taken.

"Truly, the need is for residential," Hughes said. There about six outpatient clinics in South Jersey, but only one state-certified long-term inpatient clinic each in Camden, Burlington, and Gloucester Counties.

While the majority of its clients are from Camden County, the center has seen people from as far away as Mercer County. Two-thirds of those who receive treatment there are on parole, probation, or were sent from drug court, according to state statistics.

The state and the client's county of residence provide most of the funding and the budget is tight, said Hughes, who does not foresee an increase in government reimbursements despite rising costs of care.

The residential program aims to provide patients with structure and discipline, while treating them medically and emotionally. Community resistance to the facility has abated, Hughes said, and several churches have supported the center with Bible-study classes and community-service opportunities for clients.

But, say current and former participants, treatment only works for those who want to be there.

For nearly half his life, Jeffrey Harris, 41, of Camden, was involved with selling drugs. After his last time behind bars - two years and five months at Bayside State Prison - he came to the VOA center with a different mind-set.

"I have served Satan for so many years and he has done me no good," said Harris, who is halfway through the residential program. "I have nothing to show but pain and grief."

Harris hopes someday to open a small business, such as a barber shop or car wash.

"I want to give back," especially to his wife, three children and grandchild, whom he has hurt the most, he said.

After he is released, Harris plans to move in with his wife in Williamstown. But many clients have no support system waiting.

As they near completion of their treatment, staff members help them secure housing and refer them to post-care programs. Clients of the Camden center benefit from being part of the VOA network, which includes various housing programs, Hughes said.

Among graduates of its residential program, the center has reduced homelessness by more than 20 percent, according to state reports.

"It's hard out there," said Sam Janney, a staff counselor. "You have to really plan in advance."

Only 5 percent of the center's clients have had jobs lined up when they left treatment, compared with 33 percent of those leaving treatment statewide, according to state statistics. Because many of the Camden clients have criminal records, finding work is even harder, Hughes said.

There are no local case-management agencies that offer one-stop shopping for those exiting residential treatment and in need of employment, housing, and other services, Jeffers said.

And "sometimes consumers don't feel comfortable, or don't know how to navigate" the system, Jeffers said.

After finishing inpatient treatment in December, Carbone lived at a halfway house for four months. He is now staying with his sister-in-law in Sicklerville and looking for a place while holding down a job as a mechanic. He juggles twice-weekly sessions at the Liberty Street clinic.

He wants to go to school to become an automotive engineer and a positive role model for his two young nephews.

"I don't want them to grow up like I did," he said.