The small child had witnessed a murder and stood by helplessly while the police secured the scene and searched for evidence. Caseworkers from Children, Youth and Family Services were delayed, so a social work intern with the police department bought the child breakfast at McDonald’s, then set her up with video games at the police station until caseworkers could get there.
“That was really a traumatic situation, and I was pleased that the student could handle it,” said Emma Lucas-Darby, the University of Pittsburgh social work adjunct professor who placed the intern with the Wilkinsburg Police Department. “She was on her feet because the child really didn’t understand what was going on.”
In Hampton Township, Angela Kenbok, social services coordinator with the police department, has helped a resident get the proper medications for her mental health issues and has donned gloves to help with hoarding issues, among the many cases she has taken on since joining the department.
The two municipalities are part of a slowly growing trend in Allegheny County to have social workers or interns embedded in police departments. Millvale currently has two interns, and Police Chief Tim Komoroski wants to make the position full time. Police officials in Ross Township and Sharpsburg are also interested in hiring interns.
“You need social work. It tells you that our job is not all ‘arrest and lock them up.’ We have a lot of societal ills and quality of life ills, and we need to address them,” said Wilkinsburg Police Chief Ophelia Coleman. “I believe in them 100%, and so do the officers.”
Lucas-Darby has also placed undergraduate students as interns in police departments in Erie County.
“I am so pleased that police departments are willing to take on social workers and for social workers to be part of the department. They are there, they can be called upon. The police can consult with them,” she said.
The interns in Hampton and Millvale are graduate students in forensic social work at Slippery Rock University under Associate Professor Yvonne Eaton-Stull.
“Police have a very highly specialized job, but so do social workers. Police have more the role of getting called when there is an emergency, addressing the immediate needs, where social workers can work on the underlying problem that led to the arrest or encounter with law enforcement and hopefully prevent future engagement with law enforcement,” Eaton-Stull said.
Hampton Police Chief Thomas Vulakovich said he and his detectives have spoken to Eaton-Stull’s classes for 10 years. In 2020, she asked if he was interested in hosting interns from the new graduate program.
“I was very interested in it,” he said, adding that his wife and daughter are social workers. “It hit at a time when there was a public push to ‘defund the police’ and hire more social workers.”
Eaton-Stull presented the idea to Hampton Township Council, and “they absolutely loved the idea,” Vulakovich added.
“We’re first responders. We respond to crises. What do social workers do? They respond to crises,” he said.
The internship was so successful that the council approved adding a full-time social worker to the staff, and Kenbok was offered the job, literally at her graduation ceremony. The department also currently has an intern.
Vulakovich said officers will offer the social workers’ services when on a call involving a resident who is struggling with issues that go beyond law enforcement.
Kenbok said she works with the code enforcement office on hoarding issues, the magistrate on truancy cases and the schools on mental health issues. She also helps residents access mental health services.
“The rapport is much easier to build when the residents see the genuine collaboration between the officer and myself,” she said.
When out in the community, Kenbok wears a jacket that identifies her as a social worker. The department also provided her with traffic and bullet-proof vests.
“We wanted to give them their own identity. Some people are afraid to talk to someone in uniform,” Vulakovich said. “They’re never left alone with an individual on a call. The officer is always in close proximity. The officer will step back and let Angela do what she can try to do to de-escalate.”
Kenbok has also been able to network with mental health agencies, hospitals and rehabilitation centers to get services for residents, and some agencies now hold spots for residents referred by the social workers.
She has also added many other services to the department and community, including yoga classes for stress management, animal-assisted story time at the library, monthly youth night with pizza and games, support groups for post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction and a training program held last April on mental health and substance abuse that was attended by 70 officers “from all over.”
Komoroski said the social workers in Millvale are “here to pick up after we’ve done what we can do. We leave people behind with a lot of scars that we can’t fix. But social workers can.”
He said the interns work with victims, children and “even anybody who gets arrested.”
“There are quite a few children in town that have been living in crisis-type situations in their homes. Some of them have offended, and some of them have family members that are addicted to chemicals,” he said, adding that the social workers can have up to 11 therapy sessions with the residents, then refer them to other programs and help them get into those programs.
“It can be a troubled 5-year-old at one of our daycare facilities, a single mom who can’t pay the utilities. There are assets that they have that they can work on eight hours a day that we can only work on while we are on the call,” Komoroski said. “In no way are they here to do our jobs. We don’t even allow them into the call until after we have rendered it safe.”
He said an intern worked with one resident whose late spouse paid all the bills. “It’s scary. It can seem like such a burden.”
Komoroski said the interns have made connections with Recovery Centers of America in Monroeville to deal with residents who are addicted to drugs. “He will literally be here within an hour to work with that person to get them a bed immediately,” where previously it would take a month to get residents into treatment. “By then, bad things could have happened.”
He said that there is only one “downside” to the program: “The interns only work 15 hours a week. I look forward to making it a full-time position.”
In Wilkinsburg, Coleman has the money in her 2022 budget to hire two full-time social workers.
“They were well-received here,” she said. “I think every police department should have them.”
University of Pittsburgh law Professor David Harris, a nationally recognized expert on policing, agrees — to a point.
“We have seen any number of incidents over the past 10 years, at least, where it was obvious that police officers are not the folks to be dealing with people in mental health crises. They don’t have the training. They don’t have the skills,” he said.
He said that the United States has not had a “robust mental health system” since it was dismantled during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
“Many years later, we still don’t have the mental health systems that allow people to get the help that they need. Many times, they end up with bizarre behavior in public spaces. …In a great number of cases, they are not dangerous to anybody, maybe to themselves but not anybody else. They are in crisis,” he said. “When the only people that can show up are people with guns and badges and handcuffs, you have solutions that end in arrest. Those are not great outcomes.”
In Allegheny County, resolve Crisis Services operates teams to respond to behavioral health incidents. The county is also taking steps to improve services for residents in crisis, including an emphasis on social services as an alternative to the criminal justice system.
Harris said that the ideal situation would be having social workers that can be dispatched instead of the police in certain situations.
“What we actually need is a model in which the social work folks, the mental health folks, the drug folks — that those people are dispatched in the first instance when there is a report of mental health crisis, hoarding or whatever it is, instead of having it go through the police officer.”
He pointed to a program in Eugene, Oregon, called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets), which sends behavioral health workers to mental health emergency calls instead of police.
Vulakovich in Hampton said he hopes that more police departments hire social workers, but it can be a tough sell in some areas.
“When the media says to ‘defund the police and hire social workers,’ they’ve already seeded the distrust. ‘They’re going to take our jobs.’ It shouldn’t be that way. There is a need for this in each municipality.”
Sandy Trozzo is a freelance reporter. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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