South Orange’s Community Care and Justice committee began accepting referrals from the South Orange Police Department last month to redirect emergency calls from the police to social workers, officials said.
The CCJ’s Outreach and Community Wellness Team, which has already received several referrals from the police, intends to decrease the number of emergency calls directed towards the police by handling those that would be better served by a social work intervention.
The team was set up with the help of Seton Hall’s social work department. Director of the outreach team and social work professor Kristin Miller said the team’s mission is “to engage community members in designing and traveling their own wellness journeys,” and to “provide services to marginalized oppressed groups and vulnerable groups in our community.”
According to Miller, the Outreach Team is focusing on calls about mental health, substance use, domestic violence, sexual assault, homelessness and elder concerns.
“We want to infuse this work with social work values: The dignity and worth of every person, respect, social justice and empowerment,” Miller said.
According to Dr. Juan Rios, director of the University’s social work master’s program, referrals are made based on the caller’s preference: the caller is asked if they would like to speak to the outreach program instead of the police department or the rescue squad. If they do, a referral is sent to a member of the team, who then reaches out to the caller or their family and makes an appointment to speak with them.
Rios said the goal was to connect those in crisis with pre-existing resources.
“For example, if there’s an issue with them accessing mental health services, we try to figure out why, and support them through getting connected,” Rios said. “Those calls that are due to a misunderstanding or mental wellness usually go to the police, when it can usually just be a conversation or empathy.”
One of the team’s goals is to see an increased number of referrals.
“That shows that folks are more apt to trust that resources work, so they’re utilizing it more,” Rios said. “The problem exists all the time, whether we know it or not.”
So far, this social work pilot program consists of a small team, Miller said. As of now, the team members include two part-time staff members, three interns, and some volunteers.
“We have a really fantastic team,” Miller said, “it’s definitely been exciting so far.”
Both Miller and Rios said they believe that the program can continue to expand with more funding. According to Rios, more funding could lead to more transportation for callers who need it, and more workers that can become part of a full team that would focus on dispatch calls.
“Our long-term goal is to really develop this into a program where we have full-time social workers on staff, where we potentially in the future would want to take referrals from community members, and potentially be able to respond in the moment if there are some crises where it would be more appropriate for a social worker to respond if there’s not serious violence,” Miller said.
Rios said he hopes that the Outreach program receiving referrals will help create more authentic relationships in South Orange, Newark and other communities, and improve the culture of the community as a whole.
“The more we belong or feel like we belong, the better quality of life that we have,” Rios said.
Emma Thumann can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.