Hector Matascastillo has a chip in his front tooth that reminds him of where he was nearly two decades ago – suicidal and desperate for help.
During a January blizzard in 2004, Matascastillo, an Army Ranger veteran, awoke from an antisocial flashback to see himself sitting in the snow on his front step, facing a row of Lakeville police officers, Pointing to the one in which the guns were drawn.
Through the haze of post-traumatic stress disorder, they thought they were enemy fighters. He credits the officers for not firing at him as he struggled to lay down his own unloaded weapons. He cut his teeth during that time and practiced his own suicide.
Fast forward 17 years.
In September, Matascastillo, now a psychiatrist, was on the other side this time. He stood on a stairwell in the West St. Paul apartment complex with Dakota County South Metro SWAT officers, confronting a suicidal man with a knife, talking to him about all the reasons he should choose life.
The man surrendered after three hours, and this incident is a positive example of what can happen when police and social workers work together. Departments spread across this mostly uncharted territory have found training to embed social workers scarce and have adopted handicraft programs to meet their needs.
“There is no formal training for embedding social workers,” Matascastillo said. “It’s really a mess. My fear is that eventually social workers will put themselves in a jam they can’t get out of.”
He is currently writing a training program designed to help his colleagues better understand how to work with the police. A possible title? “A day in the life,” he said. It will be designed to teach social workers how the police work, and how to stay out of their way when necessary.
Mental health crisis numbers are on the rise
In Ramsey County, plans to enact a law to partner with social activists were in motion for nearly five years before the topic of the murder of George Floyd was brought into the limelight.
“Between 2006 and 2015, the demand for mental-health-related events doubled,” Sargent said. Justin Tiffany with the St. Paul Police Department. “We knew that would require feedback on the law enforcement side as to how we could reduce some of those calls and connect them to the appropriate services.”
St. Paul Police has three built-in social workers in their community outreach and stabilization program.
The Maplewood Police Department began putting together a mental health outreach team in 2018 that partnered specially trained officers with community paramedics. As he began his work, he discovered that there was a need for a built-in social worker. This month he hired a second one.
Civil unrest and the COVID pandemic have added to the mental instability for many. Matascastillo said the public’s issues are affecting first responders and physicians.
“We are losing a large number of physicians across the United States,” he said. “Now we have a waiting list. Everyone’s looking at their waiting list and saying, ‘I can’t stay.’ There is a panic and people are not doing well with it.”
more than a crisis negotiator
How is an embedded social worker different from a crisis negotiator or case manager?
“The negotiators are very specific to the emergency situation,” said Lieutenant Mike Dugas of the Maplewood Police Department. “Our embedded social workers are trying to solve the overall problem.”
Working closely with the police, embedded social workers act as a bridge for traditional case workers. They often assess the needs of the person in distress at the scene. Their expertise helps them quickly connect the individual to get the best, best help specific to the individual’s needs. This often proves to be more effective than the officer making a general referral to a case worker away from the initial incident.
Dugas, for example, told of a call in which a suicide woman was not armed and was not threatening anyone else. Amy Cusisto-Lathrop, a social worker who was hired through Ramsey County in April, was called to the scene and worked with the woman, linking her to programs that helped address the underlying causes of her problems. could help.
Another example was a woman who was constantly calling 911 about a domestic violence situation. After getting in touch with Kuusisto-Lathrop and connecting her to short-term case management and counseling, her 911 calls disappeared.
In the final quarter, Maplewood Police dealt with 200 people who were facing some sort of crisis. Of those, 117 were related to mental health, 54 were from substance abuse, 18 were medical, 13 had self-care or vulnerability issues, 11 were housing and nine were relationship-based interactions.
Paul Police has seen more than 1,400 referrals for community services and mental health resources over the past three years. Within the past six months, the department launched a recovery access program that connects people with chemical health problems. That program has helped 60 people so far.
“By being an embedded social worker partnered with Public Safety, we are able to address and solve so many community issues and needs that we have never been able to do before,” Dugas said. “The positivity has been overwhelming.”
Police: Security first, then social work
But what about calls in which the person is armed and is threatening to harm others?
Matascastillo said that’s where policymakers need to understand that while police officers may not have the skills to negotiate a crisis, social workers generally don’t have the tactical skills.
As for Matascastillo, when he was standing on the ladder last September talking to a man armed with a knife, he was not standing there alone. He was accompanied by shielded officers of the SWAT team. The SWAT was present to ensure that Matascastillo was not hurt and intervened if necessary. He said he was surprised to see the officers working.
“Those people are amazing,” he said. “I really respect him.”
Maplewood has taken precautions to protect its social workers.
“Our social worker has the same protective gear that our officers have,” Dugas said. For the social worker to be in an unsafe scene, clearance from a supervisor is required. “We’re not going to put him in a situation that would put him at risk without a significant safety plan around him.”
St. Paul police officers said they put safety first.
“Our social workers are never really in dynamic situations, like a person with barricades or a person armed with a weapon,” said SPPD’s Tiffany. “We are always very conscious of the safety of our social workers, and that is absolutely our priority.”
Who Pays for Embedded Social Workers?
Ultimately, the taxpayer involved social workers. However, within the police department, some people wonder whether underlying social workers are contributing to police defenses.
A rallying cry after the death of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis, the idea of ”save the police” could actually range from eliminating police altogether to reclaiming funding for more humanitarian efforts. In Ramsey County, police departments have so far found a way to bring in social workers without tampering with the police budget.
“We don’t replace officers with social workers,” Dugas said.
Social workers in the Maplewood and St. Paul Police Departments are made possible through county grants or partnerships.
This means that when social workers are embedded, they are not funded, as Tiffany explained: “We currently have three grants to support our programming,” he said. “A time limit of about three years is provided to each of them. They expire at various points over the next two to three years. Therefore, we are constantly revisiting different funding options.”
‘Not a one stop solution’
What do police and social workers want policy makers to understand?
“Social work is a very important aspect of emergency services,” Dugas said. “But it’s not a one-stop solution for everything.”
Matascastillo himself has become a bridge between social workers, law enforcement and the patient. To policymakers, he suggests a dose of humility.
“Humble yourself,” he said. “Spend a day in an officer’s life before you make a policy that affects them. Ask them, ‘How will this affect you?’ Because their voice is yet to be heard. And we, as a community of citizens, need to hear from the working professional.”