standing Westerly Town Hall

WESTERLY — The Town Council will  try a different approach to preventing substance use disorders now that it has abolished the Westerly Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force.

The council voted unanimously on Monday to repeal the town ordinance that had established the task force. Although it continued to meet, the task force lost several members in recent months and had been virtually out of funds since October, when what remained of a five-year, $485,000 Rhode Island Strategic Prevention Framework Partnerships for Success grant was expended.

Town Councilor Sharon Ahern led the effort to disband the task force and repeal the ordinance. State law specified 15 members and called for representation of parents, students, health professionals, and law enforcement. On Wednesday Ahern said she hoped the council would establish a new group with a different name and fewer members. "Fifteen people is too many. It causes issues with making quorum. It's wearying and not productive," she said.

Ahern also noted that the public health and social services community is moving away from the term substance abuse and instead using substance use disorder. "Substance abuse has been deemed pejorative," she said.

The group that replaces the task force will work collaboratively with the South County Prevention Coalition. It was formed in 2017 as part of the state's shift away from task forces in every municipality, and toward a regional approach. Heidi Driscoll, director of the South County coalition, said Monday that the new model requires local groups of at least six members who must meet at least 10 times each year.

The South County group has assigned a coordinator to Westerly who is currently approved to devote nine hours per month to the town. The number of hours could increase if the new group succeeds in obtaining grant funding, Driscoll said.

Councilor Suzanne Giorno, on Monday, pushed for the town to retain a role. "I want to make sure the town doesn't get lost ... I don't want to just be added to the list," she said. "I want to make sure that people here have the ability to support and help the individuals that need help."

Giorno also asked that the new group expand its focus. "The previous grant focused on alcohol, but with the opioid crisis people are concerned," she said.

Laurel Holmes, director of community partnerships and population health at Westerly Hospital, said that the South County Prevention Coalition is working with a multidisciplinary group of hospital staff members who are engaged in implementing the hospital's community health improvement plan. "Substance use disorder has been a priority for the last three years and will continue to be," Holmes told the Town Council.

"We need efforts from prevention all the way through to care and I think this reorganization just puts us in a better place to be able to do that," Holmes said.

The new group, Holmes said, would "be more nimble and able to respond to opportunities that emerge." The task force had been meeting at the hospital in recent months.

On Thursday, Cioffi questioned whether the former task force had made enough of an impact in Westerly. "I have people I talk to in the community and the feeling was, 'Who are they and where are they?' That was very concerning," she said.

The new group should work on being visible by meeting with organizations and groups throughout the town, Cioffi added. "And it's not just children. The new group needs to be front and center. It's a difficult subject but it's one that needs to be addressed," she said.

Town Council President Christopher Duhamel said Thursday that the former task force might have lacked focus and was hamstrung by the required number of members. "It was cumbersome, the number of people," he said.

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