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El Paso County hopes to improve access with new oversight 

click to enlarge Detox's tents have been in use for nearly six years. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Detox's tents have been in use for nearly six years.

Without fanfare last summer, El Paso County's detoxification facility for those under the influence of alcohol or drugs was transferred from the Sheriff's Office to the Community Services Department to separate the program from an agency that houses criminals.

The program remains located in two tent-like structures next to the Criminal Justice Center on East Las Vegas Street. They were constructed with Sheriff's Office funds after AspenPointe closed the area's only detox facility in early 2009.

"Since its inception our treatment partners have expressed concerns that having Detox operations under the [Sheriff's Office] might be an access barrier to some people who really need the services," county spokesman Dave Rose says, via email. "In other words, they may have had past interactions with law enforcement that resulted in spending time in jail and they may worry that going to a Detox facility operated by a law enforcement agency would somehow lead [to] more time in jail."

Placing the program, which had more than 5,000 admissions last year, under Community Services would provide "an additional 'firewall' to address those concerns," he says.

"Since Detox is not a law enforcement program, most felt that it was better aligned within County Administration," Tim Wolken, who oversees the program for the county, says in an email.

But the structures remain behind chain-link gates and fences and sit next to the jail, so visually, the facilities appear to be an extension of the jail.

How the detox facility is funded hasn't changed, according to Rose. The Colorado Office of Behavioral Health provides $820,000; local hospitals, $600,000; and the Sheriff's Office, $556,000 through the jail's medical contract.

The mission of the program is to provide a safe and effective continuum of care for citizens who need substance abuse and addiction treatment. Those eligible include anyone 18 or older who's under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and those experiencing withdrawals who are not oxygen dependent, and do not have bladder and bowel function problems.

Detox does not check for criminal history or active warrants. It does serve the homeless, as well as those without health insurance.

Detox Manager Kary Tuinstra says most referrals come from hospitals, which have helped fund the operation in order to reduce emergency room traffic.

People brought to detox can be housed for five days but are provided minimal medical treatment, because while the facility has nurses on staff and does provide some medications to assure people remain stable, it's not considered a medical detox program, Tuinstra explains on a video the county uses to outline programs for its Citizens College program.

As for the shift of detox to Community Services, Tuinstra says, "A lot of people are worried because of where we're located and that we are part of law enforcement, and we are not." Part of the confusion may stem from the continued presence of detox information on the sheriff's office web page at detox.elpasoco.com.

The operation also can refer people for other needs, such as mental health treatment, employment searches and health care, she says.

"A lot of people, they reach the point where their life has become unmanageable," she says. "The drug or alcohol [has] taken over their life, and they want something better. They've tried to do it on their own, and it hasn't worked for them. So, we are kind of their support system. They come in here, and we support them and try to come up with a service plan on what's the next step, so that they can move forward."

The facility also works with other providers, including sober-living homes in the region.

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