Administrators consider proactive approach to social services
By Jason Starr
An effort is developing among Chittenden County municipalities to bring the proactive social worker approach that has been successful in reaching out to people with mental health and drug addiction issues in Burlington into the suburbs.
Burlington’s “street teams” have been around for 17 years, walking the Church Street Marketplace and other downtown locations engaging with people and guiding them to social services. It’s a collaboration between the city and the Howard Center, a Burlington-based nonprofit social services provider.
Police chiefs and administrators in six greater Burlington municipalities approached the Howard Center this fall about creating a similar program within their borders. Williston, South Burlington, Shelburne, Colchester, Essex, and Winooski are in discussions about sharing the cost and benefit of a four-member “community outreach team.”
Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire said the team member assigned to Williston would operate out of the police department and help officers respond to incidents that call for a social services approach.
“Whether it’s a family dispute or someone who is addicted to opiates, or some other mental health issue, something has broken down if the police are called — and they are not the best group to be dealing with those kinds of issues,” McGuire said in October when he introduced the concept to the Williston Selectboard. “The thinking is to develop an alliance with the Howard Center and actually bring social workers into the picture.
“I also envision they will work with families that are known to have issues and maybe prevent calls from coming into the police department.”
McGuire said funding would come from the police department budget initially, with money available from currently unfilled officer positions.
“I think it’s an exciting opportunity,” he said. “The risks are pretty low in trying (it), and the potential payback is pretty high.”
South Burlington has already committed to funding the program, according to Catherine Simonson of the Howard Center. The other municipalities are in various stages of approval, she said. The Vermont Department of Human Services has committed to helping fund the program, she said, and a grant application has been submitted to the UVM Medical Center.
“The (Burlington outreach team) has been really successful in reaching people we are trying to keep out of the emergency department and the correctional system,” Simonson said. “It has inspired the surrounding communities to have something similar.”
The Howard Center studied how the program could be adapted to less urban areas, with decreased emphasis on street outreach and more focus on working with families police have repeatedly responded to, as well as responding to police calls that have a mental health or an addiction element.
The social worker would then act as a care coordinator, Simonson said, helping connect people with social services.
“It (involves) working with people who are hesitant about services, who wouldn’t pick up a phone and ask for help,” she said.
The four outreach workers would be shared among the communities, backing each other up as needs arise.
“There is a growing issue of law enforcement being pulled into mental health services when it’s not really the training of law enforcement,” Simonson said.
Simonson and McGuire expect the program to be in place by January.