Outreach program pairs social workers, police

Town officials and the Howard Center announced a new crisis prevention initiative in a push to address mental health and substance abuse emergencies in six municipalities throughout Chittenden County.

The Community Outreach Program, developed by the Howard Center and police and town officials from across Chittenden County, is based on the Street Outreach Program in Burlington, which focuses on specific geographic locations in Burlington such as Church Street.

The Community Outreach Program will imbed social workers with police in South Burlington, Colchester, Williston, Winooski, Essex, and Shelburne so they will be along with first responders in emergencies.

South Burlington City Manager Kevin Dorn said an increase in mental health issues sparked action from local governments to address the problem. Dorn said 80,000 residents live in the six municipalities involved and there needed to be an equivalent to Burlington’s program. A lack of capacity for the mentally ill in hospital emergency rooms and strains on resources contributed to this countywide effort, he said.

The current budget for the program is $320,000 to pay for four social workers, operational costs, and other program costs. Shelburne’s share is coming from the town Social Services Committee budget for 2018.

Dorn said they will look to state grants to cover half of the expenses going forward, but to get the program off the ground, South Burlington will cover a quarter and the remaining five municipalities will share the other quarter.

Colchester Police Chief Jennifer Morrison agreed that including mental health professionals in emergency response is needed to help those going through a crisis. Chief Morrison served in Burlington for 23 years and saw the improvement the Street Outreach Program brought to the city. She said the “organic training” law-enforcement officers will receive from working alongside the social workers is another positive.

Catherine Simonson is the Howard Center’s chief client services officer. She said the program will also make it possible to reach vulnerable people who may not feel comfortable calling police in their time of need. With new members on the response teams, she said, she hopes those at-risk individuals feel safer coming forward with personal issues.

Ultimately Morrison said the impact of this program could be that it becomes a reliable resource for people in crisis before they reach the point of suicide. Shelburne’s Director of Administration Ann Janda agreed, saying she and Dorn discussed how to address mental health in their respective communities after multiple suicide attempts.
The issue came to a head last March when 25-year-old South Burlington resident Tyler Denning fell out of a window while holding his 6-year-old son. He was charged with aggravated assault and reckless endangerment. Denning’s defense attorney attributed the incident to a psychotic episode. Both Janda and Dorn realized that cases like these might be prevented with better mental health responses from the community.

So far, the Howard Center has hired three social workers, and is currently looking to add a fourth, who have diverse backgrounds helping individuals with mental health, homelessness, and substance abuse issues. A key at-risk service provider, the Howard Center says it helps 15,000 individuals and families in Vermont every year with disabilities, medical services, crisis prevention and more.

The six municipalities and the Howard Center have signed an 18-month initial agreement for the Outreach Program.
Once the program is under way in Shelburne, Janda said the social workers will familiarize themselves with certain locations where services are in high demand, such as Harbor Place and The Food Shelf, and will begin their outreach in those areas. The effort has not yet been put into place as the new staff is coming on board and going through training.

“I hope that this new program will be successful in assisting with mental health, substance abuse, homelessness, and unmet social service needs in our community. I also hope it will serve to increase the safety of people in crisis, the people around them, and emergency responders,” Janda said.

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