St. Joseph Police Department sees success with on call social workers

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Social workers statewide are embedding themselves into police departments to help improve how law enforcement handles and responds to mental health calls.

Kristen Siler-Kline, community mental health liaison (CMHL) crisis clinician for St. Joseph Police Department, has been embedded in the department since January 2019. Of the 800 mental health calls forwarded to Siler-Kline and her counterpart Liz Harrington last year, nearly 77% of those individuals were connected to mental health resources.

“We’ve seen a big increase in people that are struggling with the pandemic,” she said. “For some people, if they’re continuing to call the police, maybe they just need somebody to talk to.”

This year, 722 mental health calls have already been forwarded to liaisons at St. Joseph’s Police Department, with 15% of individuals connecting to outpatient mental health and/or substance use resources, and 9% receiving inpatient treatment.

Of those referrals, 42% involved an individual who was already connected to a mental health provider and was either reconnected or simply continued their services.

“We’re always taking people out to the hospital, but I’m a licensed social worker, so I can screen them,” she said. “If they don’t need to go to the hospital, then we can safety-plan in the community and come up with better alternatives. If we decide we do need to go to the hospital, they can go with me. It’s usually a better alternative than going in the back of a police car.”

The move to strengthen the ability of mental health professionals to help Missourians across the state was signed into law by former-Gov. Jay Nixon in 2015.

Over 20,000 contacts were made between community mental health liaisons and law enforcement statewide between November 2013 and May 2015, with 11,000 people receiving referrals to mental health services, rather than facing arrest, in just under two years.

“They [police] go on a lot of mental health calls, a lot of calls that are, as you would, not typically a police matter,” Siler-Kline said. “[It’s] not a crime to be in crisis, to be struggling with your mental health, but they are the responders.”

Siler-Kline said having liaisons in a police department is beneficial because it provides law enforcement with alternatives to hospitalizing individuals with mental illness.

She said allocating interdepartmental personnel who have time to follow up with callers on their mental health journeys can help reduce a department’s call volume, and frees up officers for emergency calls. 

“You wouldn’t believe how they support these programs, our officers,” Sgt. Jason Strong with the St. Joseph’s Police Department said. “They engage with these mental health liaisons every day. They’re part of everything that we do at the police department.”

What’s more, hiring social workers doesn’t cost the St. Joseph’s Police Department a dime. Siler-Kline and Harrington’s salaries are entirely paid for by their employer, Family Guidance Center, a nonprofit mental health organization.

“We’re very fortunate here,’ Strong said. “I think we are, probably, for the size of our department, ahead of the curve when it comes to the nation.”

Siler-Kline said officers were initially a bit hesitant about her role in the department because previous interactions between law enforcement and individuals with mental illness had gone wrong. 

“While I may have had no part in that [negative interaction], I, as a social worker, represent that,” she said. “Some of this position is mending some of those fences from previous interactions that have happened, to try to make things better.”

She said something that especially helped demonstrate her value to law enforcement is providing emotional and mental support services to the officers as well.

“I don’t know how to put this delicately, but if a child has died, or say they go on a child fatality, and it’s the same age as their own child, like those things really hit home for people, are really difficult,” she said. “So, we can provide that support for them.”

Strong said he has seen a significant change in officers’ health since embedding Siler-Kline into the department. He said he recognizes a great need for liaisons in police departments and hopes more will consider embedding them.

“It’s a great collaboration because it’s putting the resources where they matter,” he said. “You don’t need a police officer on every single call.”

Siler-Kline said she believes embedding social workers in police departments is the first step to mending the relationship between law enforcement and the community.

“It’s nice that we can respond because we’re not in uniform,” she said. “Some people have had negative experiences with law enforcement. Some people, just seeing the police can be triggering for them.”

Police departments interested in embedding social workers should reach out to a county Community Behavioral Health Liaison for details.

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