In 2016, Des Plaines, Illinois Chief of Police Bill Kushner was approached with an idea which aimed to solve a problem that had been around for decades.
When he started with the Chicago Police Department in 1977, Chief Kushner remembers that the way incidents involving officers abusing alcohol or other substances ended up being more enabling than and preventative. Fast forward to 1989, “the age of enlightenment” as Chief Kushner, then a sergeant with CPD, likes to call it and he recalls the same approach. “In 12 years we had not changed our philosophy at all.”
It wasn’t until the early 2000’s when departments began to realize that brushing officers’drug or alcohol abuse issues under the rug was not only unproductive—it was dangerous.
“The only thing we were helping our personnel with was helping them get worse.”
The problem is, seeking help today comes with its own baggage. Gossip moves quickly throughout departments, says Chief Kushner, and that’s one reason cops tend to bottle up their problems.
Once an officer does take proactive steps to receive treatment, a whole other set of issues opens up.
“I’ve had officers go to inpatient treatment and come out a day later asking to be fired. They refused to sit across from someone in group therapy who they had locked up for drug possession. They didn’t want to open up and talk about their families or personal issues in front of a person they had arrested. And that’s not just a hinderance to the recovery of these officers—often times it’s a matter of safety, whether it’s the safety of the officers or their families.”
A revolutionary idea gets the go-ahead. When Police Social Worker Vickie Poklop came to Chief Kushner with the hope of setting up some sort of law enforcement-specific treatment center—something that took the unique elements of being a law enforcement officer into serious account—he jumped at the chance to see it through.
Chief Kushner called Yolande Wilson-Stubbs, President of AMITA Health Holy Family Medical Center, and asked if Holy Family would host a meeting for a few area chiefs, deputy chiefs, and special agents in charge— “anybody we could think of.”
“She said, ‘sure, how many?’ and I told her 50. She kind of let out a nervous chuckle and said, ‘come on, how many?’ and I said ‘no, seriously, 50.’”
“Yolande didn’t hesitate to set up the meeting. After sending out 50 invitations, 48 people showed up. It was incredible. The boardroom was packed, and I asked them to raise their hands if they had anyone in their department who would benefit from a program like this. Every single hand went up.”
Wilson-Stubbs had all the proof she needed. She left the room and walked into the office of Holy Family’s chief financial officer.
“She told him she wanted to make this happen. She said she needed a pro forma, an architect, a project manager, and anything else she could think of to create this program. She never looked back.”
After selling the idea to the chairman of the board of AMITA Health—Holy Family was in the process of being assumed (the term for a medical merger) by AMITA—the project got rolling.
St. Michael’s House is born. The treatment center was dubbed St. Michael’s House, named after the archangel protector of warriors. It is the only facility of its kind in the country.
St. Michael’s House is a law enforcement-only inpatient and outpatient facility dedicated to helping police officers overcome addiction and substance abuse. It is open to any law enforcement professional from any department across the country. Its location—a mere 15 minutes from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and within a reasonable drive from Midway Airport—makes it an easy trip for anyone who needs it.
The facility is helmed by a medical director who is a board-certified internist and addiction specialist. It employs a medical and nursing staff devoted to diagnosing officers who come in for treatment and seeing them through the process of getting healthy.
“Of course, if a patient needs heart surgery, they’re going to be transferred to a hospital,” says Chief Kushner. “But minor medical needs are taken care of, and the staff at St. Michael’s House is made up of experienced substance abuse professionals. They take a holistic approach to tackling anything you need to come out on the other end clear of your addiction.”
St. Michael’s House offers complete confidentiality to officers. The program is covered by HIPAA and is legally recognized as a center providing medical/surgical treatment of substance abuse. It offers no tours to prospective patients or outside entities if even a single officer is staying at the facility.
It is also covered by almost all major medical insurance carriers. A fundraising foundation is around the corner which will cover all costs of treatment for officers who do not have adequate insurance.
The doors open to an impressive response. The ribbon on St. Michael’s House was cut on July 22nd, 2019. Since then, the facility has held six to eight inpatient officers a day, every single day. This doesn’t count the number of outpatient officers who continue to receive support from staff.
The program has blown away expectations. It boasts an incredible 96% success rate among officers who complete the program.
St. Michael’s House is a “secure-unlocked” location covering two floors of a private medical facility. If an officer wants to leave, they can do so freely and immediately. Coming in is a different story, as patients must be buzzed in after a thorough vetting process.
The first floor, which is secured with its own intake system, features outpatient group rooms and a number of areas dedicated to medical assessment and minor treatment. Everything in the facility is ligature-resistant to protect patients.
The second floor of St. Michael’s House is devoted to inpatient residential needs. It holds 14 furnished patient rooms—eight of which are focused on inpatient detox, complete with hospital beds and medical gases.
The floor also features a large inpatient group room (which can be turned into two separate group areas with a sliding divider), a video resource room in which patients can video chat with their families or external therapists, a computer room with internet access, and a workout room for exercise and physical therapy. It houses a small library which continues to grow, as well as a communal eating area.
“It’s warm and inviting. That’s the first thought that seems to strike anyone who comes in…warm and inviting,” says Chief Kushner.
How it works. The first day a patient enters St. Michael’s House, they receive a psychiatric assessment from a medical professional. If an individual is found to require substantial psychiatric help, they are brought to an institution which specializes in mental health treatment—though St. Michael’s House is currently working to receive a psychiatric license to help those who may have significant mental health needs.
“It looks like we might have the license by the end of the calendar year,” says Chief Kushner, though he notes that procuring a medical license is always subject to external timeline delays.
Inpatient therapy is supported by an electronic suite of systems proven to help individuals track and combat their addiction. Each patient is given an iPad, which displays their schedule of activities and provides other supplemental tools during their stay.
“Patients receive a world of help. They talk about nutrition, they talk about the causes of addiction, they talk about stressors. There are a bunch of social workers and psychologists on staff who have been working with substance abuse and addiction treatment for decades.”
“Everyone on staff has jumped at the opportunity to work with and help cops, which has been incredibly gratifying to witness.”
The inpatient stay features a detoxification process, medical treatment (if necessary), and other holistic support. This part of the process lasts for up to 14 days, though it can be shorter if an officer—with the guidance of staff members—feels that their treatment doesn’t require the whole two weeks.
After leaving, officers are provided with extensive outpatient support and aftercare. This includes regular check-ins with St. Michael’s House staff and weekly group meetings.
Success in the program comes with a caveat, however.
“You have to want the help. You have to want the help. If you put in the time and energy to seek treatment and come out with the right mindset, then you’re setting yourself up in the best way possible,” says Chief Kushner.
“There isn’t a cop on this job with a heartbeat who hasn’t been damaged in some way. We all need help sometimes. We have to take care of our own.”
St. Michael’s House plans to continue protecting those who protect us for a very long time.
WHERE TO GO…
Are you or an officer you know in need of help? You can download an informational flyer and contact St. Michael’s House at (847) 813-3300 if you have any questions or want more information.