Five questions: Stephen Forzato

‘This kid, he didn’t deserve to die like this’

Saint Joseph's director Stephen Forzato
Stephen J. Forzato is the director of the new Center for Addiction and Recovery Education at Saint Joseph’s University. The center will take a holistic approach to addiction and recovery. | Image courtesy: Stephen Forzato

Opioids. Alcohol. Stimulants.

The list of addictions is a long one. And the number of people battling addiction – and those affected by addiction – continues to expand.

At a time when almost half of Americans’ lives have been affected by addiction, Saint Joseph’s University has announced the formation of the Center for Addiction and Recovery Education. The center seeks to advance the understanding of issues surrounding substance use disorder and recovery, lessen addiction’s impact on society and reduce stigma on individuals recovering from addiction. 

Philadelphia Weekly recently caught up with the center’s inaugural director, Stephen J. Forzato, to talk about how it will confront the addiction epidemic.

You’ve been in the field for more than three decades and have said this issue is personal for you. Talk a little about what the establishment of CARE and its mission means to you personally.

My dream was to be in law enforcement, undercover. But prior to that, I worked for a treatment service in NYC. I spent one summer during college getting people to consider treatment and bringing them physically to treatment. I remember being outside of Wall Street – they were selling everything. We would talk to them. We’d jump on the subway with them. I had a heart for these folks. Then, I got into law enforcement. In the first two years of my law enforcement career, I worked at crime scenes. The one case that sits with me, to this day was a 17-year-old who was struggling with substance use disorder. 

He started selling to support his disease. He was bagging cocaine in his bedroom, and his mom was asleep in the other room. She woke up the next morning and found him dead in his room. This kid, didn’t deserve to die like this. For 30 years, I met people with substance use disorder and their parents. Hundreds of cases, just like that one. When it was time for me to turn the gun, badge and handcuffs in, I still wanted to spend the rest of my life furthering programs that prevent and address addiction.

What makes CARE unique? What will it do to fight the addiction crisis that isn’t being done now? 

Saint Joseph’s Center of Addiction and Recovery Education is unique because it is created out of the university’s Jesuit mission and philosophy of caring for the whole person and standing with those at the margins. Our Catholic identity calls on us to promote the sanctity of all life. 

CARE also looks at addiction and recovery holistically. While much of the media attention right now is on opioids, the larger addiction crisis (alcohol, stimulants and other substances) is going underrecognized. Part of that is a data problem. There are many ways to die from substance use disorder – car accidents, asphyxiation, liver disease – making it very difficult to track. Further, the financial burden on our health-care system from alcoholism-related illnesses far exceeds that of any other addiction.

How will you measure CARE’s impact or success? How will you know it is making a difference?

CARE launched a few weeks ago, so I’m currently working on our strategic plan and accompanying key performance indicators in the coming week. However, I can tell you about how I am looking at it. We want to lead the conversation about addiction and recovery. So, engagement of key stakeholders is critical – first responders; medical providers, future doctors/prescribers and treatment specialists; human resource professionals; elected officials; universities.

First on my agenda is to explore an interdisciplinary minor in addiction and recovery education. We already have a wealth of experience and work going on in this area at Saint Joseph’s. The minor will bring it together; harnessing the university’s existing resources. Saint Joseph’s prepares students for life in a way that other universities do not. We provide a roadmap for success in career, community and life. The minor will prepare students for a potential career in addiction and recovery; but also as parents, friends, managers, colleagues and future leaders. Students who are trained in this willhave an exponential effect in the community by ad dressing issues in a variety of domains.

If you could speak directly with the individuals suffering from addiction and their families, what would you tell them about CARE and your efforts to confront the crisis? 

Over the course of my career, I’ve given a voice to parents and loved ones who have been affected personally by substance use disorder. I’ve met too many mothers who have lost children from an overdose. They had nowhere to turn to talk about how special their loved one was; and not what others portrayed them to be. They didn’t want the end of their lives to define their value and their life. That’s the whole person. I would say to them that CARE is here to confront this issue and continue their work by honoring their voices; honoring their loved ones as whole people. Furthermore, I’ve seen these voices have a substantial impact on public policy.

Talk a little about the projected timeline of CARE. What will it look like and be doing one year from now? Five years?

One year from now, Saint Joseph’s will emerge as a model for how a campus community can work together to lead the discussion about addiction and recovery on many levels – including educational programming throughout the city and region. We’re already doing so much, but I know that we’ll build on this. We will also further the academic programming around addiction and recovery.

In five years, we’re going to take this model and hopefully share our learning with other universities. We want to incubate ideas and then scale them. We will be leading the discussion around addiction and recovery; addressing the stigma around these issues and have an influence in policy, community and research. We want to serve as a connector for researchers and policymakers. The research needs to be written in such a way that policymakers can benefit and implement this work.