Four full-time social workers will take to the streets of six Chittenden County towns by the end of this month, ready to help area police departments and businesses respond to citizens with unmet social service needs.
The new “community outreach specialists” are employed by the Howard Center and will each bring a different skillset to the pilot program, said Brandi Littlefield, assistant director of the center’s First Call for Chittenden County.
Take outreach specialist Rachel Castillo, a former community justice center volunteer and paralegal who was fed up with the lack of legal resources to proactively help people in need.
“At the point I was interacting with them, there was little I could suggest to allow them … to have a different life for themselves,” Castillo said.
And Marlon Fisher, a former military man who was once tasked with disrupting and destroying enemy support networks.
“This job, with my passion for working with people and wanting to help them in positive ways, is kind of the opposite of that,” Fisher said.
Earlier this month, Castillo, Fisher and fellow specialists Jeff Cook and Mike Muery gathered at the Colchester Police Department for another installment of their extensive training regiment.
Their morning lesson included a discussion of implicit bias in policing led by CPD Chief Jennifer Morrison. That afternoon, they changed into sweatpants and T-shirts for a physical self-defense course.
Since their hiring date, the foursome has also attended a host of Howard Center programs available to the public to better grasp what services they’ll be referring people to out in the field.
“Since we got to experience so many different programs … when we’re interfacing with people in different stages of crisis, we can feel what that need is,” Fisher explained.
The varied training exercises represent well the long list of tasks in their job descriptions, Littlefield said.
That includes spending time with individuals and focusing on relationship building, freeing up emergency service personnel and allowing them to respond to emergent needs and criminal behavior.
In an interview last summer, Morrison said CPD was partnering with South Burlington PD to secure funding for a single, shared embedded social worker to “ride shotgun” in the cruiser with their officers as needed.
That effort came amid a sharp increase in suicide attempts and mental health calls in Colchester. During just the first half of 2017, CPD had responded to 40 suicide attempts and 136 calls where mental health was a factor, according to Morrison.
But the departments’ plan quickly ballooned when town managers and police chiefs from four additional towns — Essex, Shelburne, Winooski and Williston — asked to jump on board.
The officials eventually developed a funding model relying on contributions from each town, along with state and collective impact grants through the University of Vermont Medical Center’s health investment fund.
The program is modeled after Burlington’s successful street outreach program, but the outreach specialists said their tasks would certainly not be identical since the communities they’ll cover don’t all have a clear “downtown” gathering spot.
This group will also work with populations across the age spectrum (including in schools) and with refugee populations. As with the Burlington outreach team, the specialists will not wear or carry any safety devices out on duty.
“I don’t think it’s going to take very long to prove how exceptional this resource can be to a community,” Littlefield said.
At first, the team will likely have to rely on the police officers or other officials to identify folks in need, she said. Eventually, though, they hope to respond proactively to scenarios independently, learning the key players and places in the six communities.
“We’re not showing up in a uniform with a badge, which changes the dynamic in how people might interact with us or respond to us,” Castillo added. “[They] may feel more free to talk and let down their guard.”
The group acknowledged they’re bound to interact with people in crisis, an experience that can be traumatic for the responding party. As with many jobs in the social services, the specialists said self-care is key.
“We need to make sure that we take care of ourselves as we navigate the crisis world on a daily basis,” Fisher said. “We’re pioneers, but we have so many people supporting us.”