Massachusetts Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Supports Letting Social Workers Handle Some Emergency Calls

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By Chris Van Buskirk
State House News Service

A proposed program seeks to fund locally designed alternative emergency response programs that would dispatch behavioral and mental health professionals to non-violent calls.

Advocates in Massachusetts say they want to replicate programs in other parts of the country like Colorado and Oregon, where mental health first responders replace law enforcement responses in situations involving mental illness, homelessness, and addiction.

Under legislation filed by state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Jamaica Plain), a candidate for governor, and state Representative Lindsay Sabadosa (D-Northampton) (H.2519/S.1552), the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services would be directed to set up and administer a grant program that supporters say would ensure 911 calls get the best response and allow police to focus on solving crimes.

National Association of Social Workers Massachusetts executive director Rebekah Gewirtz said social workers and community-based organizations need to play a larger role in emergency response situations, and the Act to Create Alternatives for Community Emergency Services would help accomplish that.

“The A.C.E.S Act aims to improve public health, access to mental health and social services, and reduce police violence by connecting those in crisis to community supports, rather than meeting them with control and force,” Gerwitz said during a virtual legislative briefing on Monday, January 24.

A board of community-based stakeholders including members of the state Department of Mental Health and the National Association of Social Workers Massachusetts would be tasked with deciding which localities and programs receive grants, according to the bill.

Grants would be used to “develop local systems for protecting the mental and physical well-being of residents, preventing violence, de-escalating volatile situations, ensuring access to human services, and reducing government use of force, in emergency and non-emergency situations that do not necessitate the presence of law enforcement,” the bill says.

Chang-Diaz said out of the hundreds of millions of 911 calls made each year, only a small fraction are for serious or violent crimes. Instead, she said, a majority of emergency calls relate to disorderly conduct, noise complaints, suspicious people, car accidents, or mental health and substance issues.

“Police officers dispatched to handle such crises are responsible for much more than enforcing a law,” the Boston Democrat said. ” … And too often 911 calls for help with a difficult situation can escalate into a risky, or even a deadly police-civilian encounter. And communities of color and people with mental health illness are at heightened risk during these encounters.”

The bill had a hearing before the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee of the Massachusetts Legislature in July 2021; that panel has until Wednesday, February 2 to make a recommendation on the legislation.

Thirty-seven lawmakers co-sponsor the House version of the bill, including the Housing Committee co-chairman, state Representative James Arciero (D-Westford), and the Senate Ways and Means ranking minority member, state Senator  Patrick O’Connor (R-Weymouth). The Senate version of the bill includes 15 co-sponsors.

Supporters of the bill pointed to the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon, a mobile crisis intervention program staffed by members of a community health center who use municipal vehicles. The program provides support for the Eugene Police Department by responding to calls dealing with social service issues, according to the city.

The program in Oregon often provides initial contact and transportation for people who are intoxicated, disoriented, mentally ill, or require non-emergency medical care, according to the city. A similar program — Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) — made up of social workers and paramedics exists in Denver, Colorado.

Barbara Okeny of Diverse People United said as a first-generation South Sudanese immigrant, there is an “incredible amount” of stigma around having mental health issues or needing help for mental health concerns.

But access to mental health resources and connections to community support, she said, are imperative for immigrants considering the levels of stress and trauma people experience through the process of migration.

“Due to the status as immigrants, there’s additional concern for interactions with the police, which could lead to interactions with [U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement]. Within immigrant communities, there is just as much need for mental health services,” Okeney said. ” … This bill would have an impact on so many communities. This includes immigrant communities, Black and brown communities and folks within the transgender community.”

The legislation does not describe how the grant program would be initially funded. A spokesman for the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, which is backing the bill, said the Legislature will need to decide how to fund the bill should it become law.

Sabadosa said the state could draw upon a portion of American Rescue Plan Act dollars designed to fund local crisis response programs for a five-year period starting in April 2022. The federal law also provides for an 85 percent enhanced federal matching rate for qualifying services, according to State Health and Value Strategies.


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