An officer of Fairport, New York, during engaging with a driver. Fairport is among smaller communities that successfully incorporated social workers into their 9-1-1 response force.(Source:Village of Fairport)

Social workers embedded in police forces have been a growing trend in larger urban areas, including Dallas, Texas, and Hennepin County in Minnesota.

In recent years, smaller communities have also started using social workers to help with crisis-related calls. One of the most well-known communities is Alexandria, Kentucky, population 9,500, which hired two social workers, the first one in 2016.  

“We’ve been tasked – sometimes unjustifiably – with solving the problems of our community,” Mike Ward, who was the Alexandria police chief when he pushed for the inclusion of social workers, told The Guardian. “Just call the police, they’ll take care of it. And we can’t do that. It’s unrealistic.”

Meanwhile, there are other efforts taking place in smaller communities across the United States as well. 

In January, Fairpoint Village, New York, Police Chief Sam Farina announced an initiative to add a social worker as part of a restorative justice initiative. 

“We wanted to promote a system that makes the victim whole, the community whole and the offender whole,” he said during a press conference announcing the initiative. 

Certain offenders are diverted from court and the restorative justice philosophy allows for input from the victim. At that time, a licensed clinician or social worker helps with an assessment and identifies any needs, such as substance abuse support, employment needs or other underlying causes. 

“Once that is determined, we have them enter into a formal agreement with the police department,” he said. “If they are successful, they are allowed to avoid the intake report.”

Since the start of the program, Farina said there have been 19 cases, with all but one turning out successfully. 

“It’s a paradigm shift,” he said during an interview with The Daily Yonder. “What’s provided for us is more intimate contact with cases, understanding the underlying issues, why people are involved in criminal activity or having a mental health issue or domestic violence-related issue. So we’re looking at sort of the static events. We’re looking at what’s going on, behind the scenes – the underlying reasons for behavior, and trying to come up with a way that’s restorative to address these issues instead of ultimately going through the judicial system.” 

Funding for the initiative comes from the operational budget, he said. The social worker is a consultant and is able to be on call to attend to crisis calls as needed. 

Farina said a lot of people think restorative justice is soft on crime.

“But I would say that it’s just the opposite of this. This actually is more of an accountability initiative – personal accountability for what the person has done, and there’s a lot more interaction with the victims of crimes,” Farina said. “There’s a lot more satisfaction from the victim standpoint, because we’re listening to the victim and what they’re trying to get out of it.”

One success story involves a young man who was involved in a harassment case, Farina said. The young man was failing out of school and floundering in other areas. Through the six-month intervention, Farina said, the social worker was able to make sure he attended school, where he graduated and has found full-time employment. 

“So where this kid would have drifted off and been just another one of those statistics of somebody finding a life of crime or finding out antisocial tendencies, we actually got him back online,” he said. 

Tara McLendon is a professor in the Social Work department at Northern Kentucky University. She helped officials with the Alexandria, Kentucky, police department develop its program. 

Since then, she has started a network that includes about 60 such programs across the country. 

She said she often gets the question of what’s the difference between rural and urban issues. She said she doesn’t really have an answer because it’s more community-to-community. 

“We know that domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health issues, issues around aging, all of those things cut across urban, rural, rich, poor,” McLendon said. “Those common dynamics really do cut across all sorts of demographics.”

Some statistics, she noted, show that 60% of calls to law enforcement are not criminally related. Social workers can make a significant impact on crisis-related calls in rural settings, she added. 

“It’s because we’re trained as a society to call 911 when we don’t know what to do,” she said. “It could be any range of social issues: domestic violence. My husband is 75 years old, he’s frail, he fell, I can’t get him up. Who do you call: 911? So I think, in particular, in rural areas, social workers can make a significant impact in those repeated calls that are not criminally related.”