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Rep. Hooper to Fight for Social Worker Grant

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Mary Hooper
Montpelier Rep. Mary Hooper. Courtesy photo.

Efforts to secure state money to help pay for a social worker to be shared by the Barre and Montpelier police departments will resume this week as lawmakers return to the Statehouse.

Rep. Mary Hooper (D-Montpelier) said that funding the embedded social worker position will be a legislative priority for her this session.

The idea is partially based on a street outreach program shared by six communities in Chittenden County. That program works with law enforcement but is not directly linked to the police departments.

The Chittenden program, which serves Colchester, Essex, Shelburne, South Burlington, Williston, and Winooski, deploys trained clinicians, rather than uniformed officers, to respond to mental health calls.

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“Police social workers is a concept that has been around for a while and has been acknowledged to meet a need, and there is a lot of support underneath it,” Hooper said.

Montpelier has been grappling with an increase in complaints about homelessness and panhandling and was the site of two officer-involved shooting deaths of suspects with mental health issues in the past two years; the only such incidents in the city’s history. The officers in both cases, one a Vermont State Trooper and one a Montpelier officer, were ruled to be justified in their use of deadly force.

Funding for the embedded social worker, roughly estimated at about $100,000 in salary and benefits, is proposed to come from four sources: the City of Montpelier, the City of Barre, the Central Vermont Medical Center, and a grant from the state Department of Mental Health (DMH).

Hooper, who sits on the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, said she would fight for the state grant, even if it’s not included in Gov. Phil Scott’s FY21 spending proposal. Hooper said she is optimistic that the DMH will include the funding in its budget request.

“I have been impressed by the results they are seeing up in Chittenden County so that if DMH doesn’t put money in, I’m going to be trying to figure out how to put money into the budget,” Hooper said. “The cities are stepping up and DMH is saying that it will, so I would be really surprised if it wasn’t there.”

Hooper said hospitals, which have complained about the impact of increased mental health cases in their emergency rooms, should join with their communities to prevent crises.

“The two police chiefs, DMH, and the hospital—it’s a partnership and the hospitals are the urgent care provider in the community,” she said. “They, on the physical health side, spend a lot of time and effort in trying to make sure we’re healthy and don’t need their services. Well, they need to do it on the mental health side.”

Talks with Central Vermont Medical Center have taken place but no decision on whether the hospital will commit finding for the position have been made.

“We are early in our discussions with local police departments and Washington County Mental Health,” Anna Noonan, president and chief operating office at CVMC, said in an email. “The initial step is to learn from other communities in Vermont who have implemented similar programs to understand their lessons learned and how this might translate to a program here in central Vermont.”

Hooper said early intervention in mental health situations can save lives and money.

“It’s great preventive work and we know it will save money over the long run,” she said. “When we look at the cost of warehousing people in hospital waiting rooms, this is such an obvious solution. We need to make more of an investment in prevention across the board. You want to catch people before they are anywhere close to a crisis.”

Montpelier has included $16,000 for the position in its proposed budget and Mayor Anne Watson and Police Chief Tony Facos support the concept. Barre has included $20,000 for the position in its FY21 budget proposal, Mayor Lucas Herring said in an email. Neither city’s budget will be finalized until later this month.

“It’s a different approach to thinking about policing and it’s the right move for us to be treating people as whole individuals,” Watson said.

The city’s homelessness task force has submitted a request for $56,400, much of which would go to fund two part-time street outreach positions. That amount is not included in the city’s proposed budget and would need to be added by the City Council, which will take up budget deliberations at its meetings on January 8 and 15. The budget must be set by January 23.

Tom Brown is contributing editor of The Bridge. ..... You can contact him at tom@montpelierbridge.com