DOVER – When Kaitlin Jones started her new role as the Dover Police Department’s first dedicated social worker in mid-February, she didn’t expect the impact she’d be having across multiple facets of the community.
Her second day on the job, police responded to an overdose death that orphaned a child. She helped connect the child's grandparent with resources for her and for her grandchild.
“Grandparents raising grandchildren is common due to the opioid crisis, but as you can imagine it's an overwhelming and traumatic experience for both the child and grandparent,” Jones said. “That person is grieving after losing a son or daughter, and now they have to navigate raising their grandchild. We got her connected with support groups for grief and others in her situation, and ensured the child has the proper support system, too.”
That is just one example of the many cases Jones has taken on in her grant-funded role, a change that both Jones and the department are optimistic and excited about. While she won’t be responding directly to police calls, she will work as a liaison between the community and various social service agencies and clinical providers to offer direct follow-up referrals for individuals and families. While many of these referrals may come as follow-up from calls or interactions with police, the department stresses that she is a resource for anyone in the community.
Jones, a longtime Dover resident, previously worked for Rochester School District where she had been a guidance counselor and was a prevention specialist for children affected by the opioid crisis and substance abuse. She said that she applied for the Dover job because it was a chance to make a difference in her community, and it brought her career full circle.
“The versatility of this job was really what drew me to apply," Jones said. "I saw it as an innovative and progressive opportunity in the city I was born and raised in, and am now raising my own kids here.”
Rochester is looking to make a similar hire, while the role would be structured differently under city welfare. Meanwhile the Eliot, Kittery and York police departments have already hired their own community outreach liaison, which has a role close to the one Jones is playing in Dover.
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Being a 'helpful noodge'
Jones received an email from a guidance counselor who notified her that a student’s family was in jeopardy of being evicted, and sought her counsel on how to help the family. Jones connected the family with public welfare and got the family placed in emergency housing.
Jones summarizes her role as being a “helpful noodge” to those in need as they navigate what to do during uncertain or tumultuous times.
“Accessing resources can be a pretty daunting thing for someone who's experiencing a crisis or someone who's in just a vulnerable state,” Jones said. “And it's not necessarily that they don't want to access resources or they're resistant to that, it's an overwhelming process. I can advocate for that person or work as an ally with them to empower them to reach out to services and to follow through on those services.”
Dover Police Capt. David Terlemezian said that in two-and-a-half months Jones has thrived in her experimental role, in building a wide network of support to steer clients to and using her social work experience to help anyone in need, no matter what situation or crisis they are facing.
Jones' position was made possible with funding from a Community Oriented Policing Service grant through the U.S. Department of Justice. The grant funding will help pay Jones’ salary, in addition to some costs that have been built into the fiscal year 2023 budget to keep the position going for a full-year.
A day in the job
Jones starts her morning by going over the prior day’s call log. She looks for signs that hint the person could benefit from being connected with a resource. Other cases come in a direct referral from police, fire or other city or school departments.
“As a social worker I look at what happened and how this could have been avoided if we were addressing the underlying unmet social service need, whether that be substance use, homelessness, untreated mental health issues,” Jones said. “I’ve been met with a largely positive response, a sense of openness from the clients who welcome my support. My position has been really well received so far."
Jones works closely with police officers, firefighters, community mental health agencies, recovery centers, anti-poverty agencies, the school department, other city departments, and other agencies. Examples of police interactions that may involve follow-up and referrals include: domestic disturbances, drug overdoses, suicide attempts, death investigations, and mental health related calls.
Sometimes leads can come from unexpected places. When Jones curated social media posts for mental health awareness in February, she didn’t expect to receive an email from a parent whose son was struggling with mental health issues. Jones connected her to the best resources for the boy.
“This role is an opportunity and is something special that hopefully other departments across New Hampshire can adopt,” Jones said. “Once we have a stable program in place, we plan to network with other departments who could benefit from this. We’ve already had some interest and questions like ‘who's this new police social worker and what does that look like?’ The foundation we lay could help a lot of people.”
What are other communities doing?
Eliot, Kittery and York police departments recently hired Diana Minott as the new community outreach liaison. Working with police in the three towns, Minott is being dispatched to residents in crisis and those in need of connection to aid organizations, replacing police in some face-to-face interactions. Police in the three towns are funding the position through the York County Community Action Corporation.
Rochester is hiring for a newly established community outreach position, based out of the city's welfare office.
This new role would allow best-practice interventions and working intimately with the city's welfare and police departments, to administer assessment tools, facilitate placement into emergency housing if needed, and connect individuals to social services and permanent housing, Rochester Mayor Paul Callaghan said.
Callaghan said he sees the primary goal of this position as being to identify individuals who need social service resources but who for a variety of reasons have “slipped through the cracks.” He said this can be facilitated through direct street contacts with the police and through community referrals such as social service agencies and hospitals.
At its April 5 meeting, the Rochester City Council approved the use of $143,083 from ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds for one year. The money will cover salary, benefits, a car, fuel, clothing and office supplies and furniture for one year. The city will need to budget for future years should they continue the position, Welfare Director Todd Marsh said.
“This initiative by Rochester leaders is testament to increased community awareness efforts of various commissions, alliances, and individual residents that have shifted the tide of focus toward mental health, including substance misuse," said Marsh. "We can take collective community pride with this effort.”
Marsh said they are creating a job description and will advertise the position in early May, with an eye to having the job filled by the start of the city's new fiscal year in July. Once hired, the community outreach person will serve as the primary contact for some cases, and may also go out with police, fire department or code enforcement to calls. Marsh said he sees the focus on homelessness, mental health and substance use.
"Our outreach person will be able to access the welfare records," said Marsh. "They can see a person's history. They will be out in the community and the availability of this data will help them find better ways to respond to a situation. Not everyone will have crossed our office, but I think a lot will have. That advance information will help in many situations."
Marsh, who began his career as a social worker, said he has worked to bring a more holistic approach to the city's welfare department, and for that, and other reasons, having the community outreach person imbedded in the welfare department makes perfect sense. A Somersworth resident, Marsh currently serves as chair the Hilltop Mental Health and Wellness Commission in Somersworth and is president of the New Hampshire Local Welfare Association. Building on his work in social services, even having served as the first director of the Homeless Center of Strafford County, Marsh has spent the past 19 years creating a more user-friendly welfare department, one that strives to work with their clients in more ways than the vouchers they provide.
Rochester City Manager Blaine Cox said that the position is a way to "fill a gap" for the city, bridging the gap between the resources the city can offer and reaching people where they are when they need assistance.
Reporting from Ian Lenahan contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on Fosters Daily Democrat: Meet Kaitlin Jones, Dover PD's first social worker; Rochester NH hiring, too