Social Work First Responders
When social worker and Denver Police Department co-responder Stephanie Van Jacobs goes to work each day at 10 a.m., she dons a Crisis Intervention Response Unit uniform, a bulletproof vest and a police radio. She attends role call with officers in east Denver’s District 2, is assigned to an officer, and then heads out in a patrol car to respond to emergency calls until 10 p.m.
Operated by the Mental Health Center of Denver (MHCD), the Crisis Intervention Response Unit pairs mental health professionals with Denver police officers, RTD (Regional Transportation District) transit security, and the fire and sheriff departments. MHCD also operates Denver’s STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) program, established last year, which pairs a licensed mental health clinician with a paramedic to respond to low-risk 911 calls without police.
“A lot of the calls coming into 911 don’t need police. We deal with a lot of people dealing with depression, anxiety after losing their jobs, people who are unhoused or in imminent risk of losing housing,” says STAR Program Supervisor Carleigh Sailon, a University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) adjunct instructor. “Sending the right response when someone is in crisis is social justice. We don’t need a one-size-fits-all response.”
Adaptability is key to crisis work, adds Van Jacobs, MSW’15, LCSW, LAC, whose concentration was Child Welfare. “We’re using all the skills in our toolbox and using them interchangeably. Each person is different, and we meet them where they’re at.”
Katharine Evans, MSW ’16 Children & Youth, LCSW, responds with officers to a wide variety of calls. “We can go from a burglary to someone who is suicidal,” Evans says, noting that mental health related calls are prioritized. Often, she says, calls aren’t what they seem. What might start out as a car break-in could turn out to be related to mental health or substance use.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, Evans says, there has been a significant increase in people who need connection to resources, or even help getting to resources. “Places are closed, people don’t have Internet access or a phone.” Many people lack food and are facing eviction; some people may be uncomfortable leaving their home to go to the pharmacy to pick up medication. “People call police because they are stuck and don’t have an answer to how to solve a problem.”
Calling police for help is not necessarily a bad thing, says assistant program manager Samantha Rabins, MSW ’12 Family Systems Practice, LCSW. “People call the police when they’re in trouble — 911 is what people know. By working together as social workers and police officers, we’re able to reach a lot more people who wouldn’t otherwise know how to access services.”
The co-responder program started in April 2016 and now has 29 clinicians. “We’ve been able to increase access to care and decrease involvement in the criminal justice system,” says Rabins, who supervises 14 co-responders. The program has fielded more than 10,000 calls in five years, including 2,046 in 2020; of the 2020 cases, only 2% were arrested, and 3% resulted in a ticket or citation. “When we work on things together, we can get the people we serve connected to services and increase safety and stability,” Rabins says.
Despite the co-responder program’s growth, Evans says, the need remains great. “We could be on nearly every call and find a way to provide services.”
Several other GSSW alumni are social work co-responders at MHCD, including Kate Pierce (MSW ’18, LCSW), Kevin Wilson (MSW ’18, LCSW), Brandon Kozloff (MSW ’17, LCSW, LAC), Danielle Jones (MSW ’17), Liz Stitzel (MSW ’15, LCSW, LAC), and David Aron (MSW ’17, LCSW). Read more about their work:
RTD Co-Responder Danielle Jones
For Danielle Jones, MSW ’17 Organizational Leadership & Policy Practice, much of her role as an RTD co-responder involves working with people experiencing homelessness. After all, public transportation is how people experiencing homelessness get around, and they’ll often take shelter in transit stations and platforms. “It’s problem solving with them and trying to connect them to services.”
Those services include mental health care, shelter, food — whatever they need, Jones says.
Jones is paired with a transit security officer two days a week, and for her third 12-hour shift each week, she and another mental health clinician work together following up with previous contacts and responding to new mental health calls that might come through. They work to make sure every person they contact is resourced, can get out of the crisis and get long term support.
Having grown up in a law enforcement family, Jones says she was always interested in criminal justice but didn’t want to focus on detention or carry a gun. Social work was a perfect fit, she says, allowing her to build bridges in the community and make changes.
Through the co-responder program, “People get the resources they need whether they get arrested or not. It’s proactive — we’re getting them the services they need before they’re jailed.”
“I love my job,” Jones adds. “It’s different social work, but it’s amazing social work, it’s needed social work. It’s fun, and it’s important. The work we do makes changes — it’s amazing to see the connections.”
Learn more about RTD mental health co-responder Danielle Jones in a recent story from Colorado Public Radio. Learn more about RTD mental health co-responder Danielle Jones in a recent story from Colorado Public Radio. Read More
Denver Police Co-Responder Liz Page Stitzel
Liz Stitzel, MSW ’15, LCSW, LAC, is a Denver Police co-responder in the city’s busiest district — District 6, which includes Capitol Hill and other downtown neighborhoods.
“In District 6, we see everything — we’re always busy,” says Stitzel, who has an MSW concentration in Mental Health and earned the Animal-Assisted Social Work Certificate. “We respond to a lot of suicidal or homicidal people, a lot of welfare checks, people concerned about someone’s behavior.”
Calls might also include responding to a family disturbance. “Once the criminal aspect is addressed, then we look at behaviorally what is going on,” Stitzel says. “They don’t necessarily need police — they need help and connection to resources. I might be able to help fix what is an ongoing issue.”
Prior to becoming a co-responder, Stitzel worked in a jail and halfway house for three years. “I realized how many people ended up involved with the criminal justice system due to mental illness,” she says. “As a co-responder, I can be on the front lines getting them help before they end up incurring criminal charges due to their behavioral health issue. I like the crisis work. I like things changing every day. It’s exciting; there’s definitely some adrenaline.”
Denver Sherriff’s Department Co-Responder David Aron
The Denver Sherriff’s Department handles civil matters, including evictions and transporting people for mandated mental health treatment. Since October 2020, David Aron, MSW ’17, LCSW, has worked alongside deputies to try to reduce trauma for the people involved.
“Having to go to the hospital can be scary and traumatic, and an eviction is a traumatic experience for folks. If someone is going through eviction, there may be an environmental or mental health issue,” says Aron, the department’s first co-responder. “The Sherriff’s Department is not interested in people being put out on the street without any resources — they want what’s best for people. If this process is going to happen, we want to minimize the trauma or avoid it all together.”
Sometimes, Aron and a nurse are able to administer court-ordered medication so an individual never has to be transported to a hospital at all. For people facing eviction, Aron works to connect them with a case manager, find them temporary shelter and help them work toward a safer, more permanent solution.
“People need space to talk, to express themselves in these difficult situations and to be pointed toward answers,” says Aron, whose MSW concentration was Mental Health. “I have the opportunity to step in and create a smoother landing for people.”