Co-response program pairs social workers, police

Law enforcement officers are called to respond to problems rooted in mental health disorders.

A woman on South Whidbey called 911 a total of 165 times in less than six months to report invisible intruders and other delusions.

Concerned neighbors of a man who yells threats at himself on his porch regularly contact the police.

More people than ever are threatening to commit suicide and too often follow through. Homelessness and drug abuse persists.

Law enforcement officers on the island are called to respond to a wide range of problems rooted in mental health disorders. The pandemic laid bare the extent of these issues in the Whidbey community as well as holes in services, according to county Human Services officials.

But as Island County Sheriff Rick Felici explains, there is a growing awareness in the state and across the nation that law enforcement should take a more holistic, interagency approach in dealing with the mental health crisis.

The sheriff is optimistic about a new program in which mental health professionals with Human Services co-respond with law enforcement, which is to say they are embedded in the sheriff’s and Oak Harbor Police departments and either go along on calls or follow up on officers’ referrals. The programs are funded through a federal block grant and the county’s one-tenth of 1% mental health sales tax.

“They deal with situations that we are not professionally trained to handle and don’t always have time to handle,” said Sgt. Chris Garden with the Island County Sheriff’s Office, adding that other counties have programs that have been very successful.

The sheriff’s office and Human Services have been working together for years. The opioid outreach program — with a social worker from Human Services, a deputy and a public health nurse — boasts one of the best rates in the state for getting people into treatment. Human Services has a mental health provider in the county jail and a jail transition coordinator is planned to begin this year.

Felici and Human Services Director Lynda Austin agree that “breaking down silos” between departments has been an important step toward responding to complex problems. Felici said that the criminal justice system is usually not the best place for people with mental health or substance abuse disorders, but it is too often the fallback when other services — especially beds in therapeutic facilities — simply aren’t available.

Amanda Borman-Ballard, a licensed mental health provider, has been working in the sheriff’s office for more than three months while Christina LeClaire, a licensed social worker, more recently started working from a desk in the Oak Harbor Police Department.

Borman-Ballard and LeClaire keep busy responding to a wide range of issues. LeClaire explained that they sometimes “deal with crisis on the fly” by accompanying law enforcement on calls which may involve disorderly conduct, domestic violence, homelessness, children in crisis, suicide threats, dementia and more.

Other times, they respond to referrals from officers and others who are concerned about individuals; the sheriff’s office created a form for officers to fill out.

“Sometimes I get a warmer response when I don’t show up with someone in a uniform,” LeClaire said.

Borman-Ballard and LeClaire are able to dedicate more time than police can to learning about people’s issues and working with them, including vital follow-up. She said she’s been able to build relationships with people, even keeping in touch through texting. They are able to help the departments by dealing with individuals who have a tendency to take up a lot of officers’ time, whether by calling 911 incessantly or repeatedly getting into trouble.

An important part of their jobs is to connect people to services; while the system may be incomplete or overtaxed, there is help out there for people who need it. Borman-Ballard and LeClaire said that it can be a challenge to break down barriers and convince people that they need help. They walk people through the process of seeking help, which might mean filling out forms for treatment to contacting a domestic abuse agency to signing up for low-income housing.

“A lot of the time the biggest and scariest thing is the first step,” Borman-Ballard said.

Borman-Ballard said it’s also important to give “a warm hand-off” of cases to other agencies or services. That means she explains the case background to another agency so that people in need of assistance doesn’t have to tell their stories over and over. Often people’s backgrounds have trauma that they would rather not discuss repeatedly.

Felici said having mental health professionals working out of the offices with law enforcement has a number of benefits, including better communication and an increased understanding among officers about what resources are available. The program helps to dispel some of the preconceived notions between law enforcement and social workers, he added.

Felici said a successful program will decrease 911 calls, decrease the risk of violence in the community, save money by keeping people out of the law and justice system and, more importantly, change people’s lives for the better.