Community Outreach Program Sees Positive Results

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Thursday August 30, 2018

The community outreach program for mental health has been under development since 2017 and officially launched in April 2018. This program allows for four mental health clinicians, known as community outreach specialists, to be embedded within the public service departments of six participating communities, including South Burlington. Winooski, Colchester, Essex, Shelburne, and Williston comprise the remaining five.

The program was designed as a separate but parallel program to the Howard Center’s successful Street Outreach Team initiative. Now, five months after the program’s launch, Police Chief Trevor Whipple and Deputy Police Chief Shawn Burke had encouraging news to report on initial results of the program.

At the Aug. 20 City Council meeting, Whipple provided data collected by the Howard Center, and anecdotes that highlighted the positive impact community outreach program is having on the community, as well as police officers, in terms of stress reduction. Whipple reported that from April 30-June 30, 2018, departments in all six towns had 247 community outreach contacts with individuals. This figure was further broken down by the number of face-to-face contacts and what action, if any, was taken, such as transport to the Emergency Department or referral to Howard Center programs (144 people were referred to 192 Howard Center programs).

In terms of data specific to South Burlington, there were 50 face-to-face services administered in the city during the April-June time frame, which represents about 30 percent of the 171 total contacts and is also the highest total of all towns. The second highest was Winooski with 31 contacts. South Burlington also had the highest number of contacts (41) from July 2-August 17, 2018. It should be noted that the data was collected during the hours the specialists work, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.

Whipple said this high figure could be attributed to the fact that South Burlington has the greatest number of hotels in addition to the mall. He cautioned that the figures don’t necessarily mean there have been more incidents, but that the department has been better able to identify and address mental health needs. Whipple added that with the additional tool of mental health specialists, the department’s approach to calls has shifted. For example, what once would have been approached as a disorderly conduct call for someone making a public disturbance is now often approached as a potential mental health issue.

Whipple said there were a number of anecdotes he could relay to show the impact of this program, but described a recent call where a 13-year-old child with autism had gone after his mother and sister with a knife. The family members barricaded themselves in their bathroom out of fear and called the police. Officers were dispatched along with a community outreach specialist. Whipple explained that before the program began, the department would have responded with armed officers and tried to use de-escalation techniques, but on this day, the community outreach worker was able to respond on site to guide police on how best to approach and engage. The result was that everyone very quickly became calm, the police were soon released, and the child did not need to be removed from the home.

“I expected success,” Whipple said, “but did not expect this level or to this degree. We (the police) are the generalists. Your car won’t start, you call the police, but if you don’t have immediate access to emergency mental health services, it could take forever to get help... We’d been using the wrong tool. Now, we have the right one.”

The overall stress reduction of officers has been Whipple’s focus during his tenure, ensuring that officers have access to the services they need for self-care. He said the community outreach initiative has helped tremendously in that regard. Knowing that community outreach is there and that specialists are responding to calls has been invaluable.

“I can tell you that the overall stress level of our officers has been reduced because they have a community outreach worker riding with them,” Whipple told the council. “I do believe it’s a real and valuable recruitment tool. For the officers to know this level of support is there is so important.”

At the inception of the program, Councilor Meaghan Emery expressed concerns regarding the cost of the program and the sustainability of it moving forward. South Burlington redirected $80,000 that would have gone toward the hiring of a police officer to paying an outreach specialist instead. At the time, Emery also made note of the amounts being paid by each community and the fact that although South Burlington has the second lowest median household income of all six, they would be paying the highest amount. However, it was acknowledged that South Burlington would also benefit from having a dedicated full-time specialist, while the other communities would share the remaining three individuals based on the ebb and flow of need.

At the Aug. 20 City Council meeting, City Manager Kevin Dorn reported that the Howard Center had received the $80,000 grant anticipated and this could potentially be used to expand hours for the program, although how the funds are used is up to the steering committee. As the program continues and more data becomes available, Whipple said he thinks the city will continue to see a great return on its investment. The term of the agreement is 18 months (through June 2019) with an option to extend the program on an annual basis.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent