Social Services Innovations: University, Local Police Department Form Beneficial Partnership
Emergency calls to a suicide in progress, domestic disputes, and motor vehicle accidents fueled by alcohol are, unfortunately, daily occurrences. According to 2020 statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 51.5 million adults suffer from mental illness, 14.5 million have an alcohol use disorder, 8.3 million have a drug use disorder, and another 2.4 million have a dual alcohol and drug use disorder. Additionally, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence indicates that 10 million people a year report physical abuse by a partner.
These staggering statistics underscore the need for social work professionals to develop collaborative, innovative strategies to address society’s complex issues.
Take, for example, an innovative partnership between Slippery Rock University’s MSW program and the Hampton Township Police Department in Allegheny County, PA. This collaboration has provided clinical training for graduate students while offering on-site social work partners who support officers by addressing the associated needs affecting the members of the public with whom they are called to intervene.
This article describes the role of police social workers, their duties as they complement and overlap with their police counterparts, and both the challenges and benefits of this collaboration.
The Foundation for Collaboration
Slippery Rock’s MSW program offers students specialized training in forensic social work, an area of practice that involves working with individuals, groups, and communities around issues related to the law and legal services. The collaboration features Slippery Rock graduate students and the Hampton Township Police Department working together to respond to crises with case management and follow-up services. Students selected for these positions have earned an undergraduate social work degree with some elective courses in crisis intervention and/or forensic social work in addition to having prior forensic social work experience.
Upon completion of their MSW degree and field training, these graduates are ideally qualified as forensic social workers. A graduate degree offers advanced, specialized education and training that permits social workers to obtain their state license. Because the position requires them to respond to emergency calls with officers, accompany first responders to a scene, and counsel residents, individuals who wish to pursue a police social work career must have experience in crisis intervention.
To best respond to the complex issues that beset the members of the public with whom they interact on the job, police departments need individuals who have experience in mental health, substance use disorders, and domestic violence. Affiliated social workers are able to provide the appropriate counseling and crisis intervention for the community members referred to them.
Attending webinars and receiving training through NASW and obtaining specialized certifications—such as the Forensic Social Work Certificate Program through the National Organization of Forensic Social Work—provides social workers with more knowledge not only on the social work perspective but also from the viewpoint of law enforcement.
Police social workers have a variety of duties that involve both direct and indirect services. They must take the time to build a strong rapport within the community. In order to inform residents about this valuable service, Hampton Township highlighted the social workers in the community newsletter and included them in the Citizens Police Academy.
Direct services for residents include assessment, crisis intervention, mediation, conflict resolution, education, advocacy, and consultation.
Indirect services, including case documentation, policy development, creation of resources, and professional development, support the work and development of the collaboration. Social workers benefit from continuing education in topics about criminal justice and the law. Meanwhile, with their advanced education, they can offer training to the officers to enhance their knowledge and skills related to mental illness, crisis intervention, substance abuse, and domestic violence.
Next, Vulakovich arranged a formal meeting with the township’s leadership, where university representatives presented the idea and answered questions. The department was then given consent to proceed.
Vulakovich, who was provided with several qualified candidates to interview, had total control of whom he selected for the position. He met with the officers to share the expectations and the plan going forward. Relevant policy and e-mails outlining expectations for the officers were then issued.
Information about the initiative was shared in the community newsletter, at a town council meeting, and through social media. The announcements were met with a groundswell of support from the community, and other departments began to contact Vulakovich to find out more information.
One hurdle that needed immediate attention was the lack of a social worker on the police department staff who could supervise the students. To overcome this challenge, a faculty member in the MSW program who is an LCSW with advanced education in forensic social work and prior experience working with police was assigned to conduct weekly supervision and anytime phone consultations. Meanwhile, day-to-day supervision and direction is provided by the sergeant on shift.
Perhaps the biggest concern of both the university and the police chief was the safety of the social workers. The department provided ballistic carriers (bullet-proof vests) as well as uniform shirts and coats. To avoid any misperceptions and lessen any potential targeting, SOCIAL WORKER was clearly written across the clothing and vest. Additionally, Vulakovich emphasized the department’s policies about securing the scene before social workers arrived and began assisting.
Working inside the department offers immediate social work response rather than having to call an external agency that could be a distance away. It has also been an effective way to build a team that knows and respects one another.
The police department has benefitted from the collaboration by adding individuals with expertise and training in many of the areas to which they respond. Informal conversations and sharing of information between students and police officers have fostered better understanding within both professions of their respective knowledge and skills. Formal training in crisis intervention is being planned to provide advanced, ongoing education to not only the Hampton Township Police Department but also surrounding departments. Social workers have also created valuable resource guides that assist officers in the performance of their duties when the social worker is not present.
The community has benefited by having a dedicated professional on hand to ensure residents have the appropriate resources and information to address any issues. Generally, the social worker is able to devote more time and assist in the long-term resolution of underlying problems. The community ultimately benefits from a police department that is well informed and able to provide timely referrals to residents in need of mental health, substance abuse, and family resources.
Lastly, the social work profession benefits by providing innovative ways to fulfill its mission of enhancing well-being and helping to meet needs.
Clearly, society has too many complex problems for just one profession to solve alone. Nevertheless, together, social workers and police officers may provide one piece of the puzzle that can lead to a stronger, comprehensive solution.
— Yvonne Eaton-Stull, DSW, LCSW, is an associate professor of social work at Slippery Rock University who teaches specialized courses in forensic social work. She supervises MSW students completing field placements in police departments.
— Angela Kenbok is an MSW candidate at Slippery Rock University specializing in forensic social work. Completing her field placement within a police department, she has been instrumental in the development and collaboration of this essential partnership.
NCADV.org. (n.d.). Our mission. https://ncadv.org
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. (HHS Publication PEP20-07-001). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality.