By Mary Jane Smetanka
Each morning, the senior citizen called the Duluth Fire Department, saying he had fallen out of bed. Day after day, fire personnel responded. But they soon realized the man’s real problem was not safety, but loneliness. He was looking for someone to talk to.
Fire officials called Duluth police for help, and police turned to their in-house social worker for a solution. Ona Filipovich got on the case, talking to the man and then to his home health aides, who agreed to spend more time with him.
“It was a huge quality-of-life issue for him, a small thing for us, and it greatly cut down on the calls,” says Lt. Chad Nagorski, east area commander for the Duluth Police Department. “Obviously, that was not a good use of Fire Department resources.”
A bridge for people in need
Since June 2015, Duluth police have partnered with St. Louis County to have Filipovich act as a bridge between law enforcement and county social services, arranging help for people involved in police calls and incidents that involve issues like mental illness, homelessness, and drug addiction. Duluth is believed to be the first city in Minnesota to embed a social worker in the Police Department, an approach that was pioneered in Houston, Texas.
The Duluth effort, which began as a $75,000 pilot program, has been approved for a second year and this year won the Excellence in Innovation Award from the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.
Linda Curran, St. Louis County’s adult mental health and adult protection supervisor, says Filipovich “straddles both worlds.” The social worker has a desk at the Police Department and at county offices, attends meetings at both to track what’s going on with cases that involve mental health issues, and when she can, responds to calls on her cell phone and goes out with police.
“Police know they can call her; they feel like she’s theirs,” Curran says. “It’s worked really well.”
Increase in mental health-related calls
According to Nagorski, who supervises Filipovich in her police work, since 2007 Duluth has seen a 50 percent increase in calls for service that involve mental health. In 2014, a mentally ill man stabbed a stranger to death in a grocery store. In another case, an unstable man murdered his mother.
While both men had limited contact with authorities before they became violent, Nagorski says, police felt they needed a more effective response when they dealt with people in crisis. Taking people to hospitals usually didn’t solve long-term problems. And who to call at the county for help was a mystery.
“We thought that if we could get some kind of intervention going, that makes the community safer and improves the quality of life for people dealing with mental illness,” Nagorski says. “We wanted to find another way to deal with mental issues, and give a hand up to people who were falling between the cracks.”
There are many reasons for the increasing number of police encounters with people who have mental health issues. The reasons include substance abuse, the closure of state hospitals, and group homes that can’t always cope with difficult issues involving mental health and substance abuse.
The role of the embedded social worker
Filipovich previously worked as a homeless-outreach worker on the Iron Range and also worked in violence prevention.
She is not a crisis negotiator, doesn’t wear a police uniform or vest, and isn’t called into situations that police know are dangerous. Sometimes she rides with police and goes along on calls, or has them accompany her if she thinks it may help with a situation. She describes her role as a “one-stop shop” to get immediate help for people who need it, jump starting the sometimes lengthy process of getting county social services help, which has eligibility requirements and can take time.
“My job is to hook people up with services,” she says. “The other part of my role is if an officer is having difficulty connecting with people out in the community, they might call me. Some people just don’t want to talk to the police.”
“A lot of time we just stand back and let Ona do her thing,” Nagorski says. “Sometimes she does stuff on her own; often she takes direction from a police officer. We want it to be fluid. We wanted someone who could think on their feet, be creative, someone who truly enjoyed people and wanted to get them to a better place.”
Filipovich was perfect for the job, he says. “She’s bubbly and happy when she comes to work, and she’s been accepted into our culture.”
Types of calls
While it’s the violent cases that grab the headlines, more common are police calls about dementia patients wandering the streets, bizarre public behavior, minor criminals who turn out to be mentally ill, and welfare checks that reveal homes with hungry children.
So when police found a combative and confused elderly man looking to buy a bus ticket in the tourist area of Canal Park, they called Filipovich. The man, who had a military background, wouldn’t deal with police but talked to Filipovich, who dresses casually in jeans and a shirt that has her name and position embroidered on it. “I went out there right away, and he really wasn’t talking to police,” Filipovich says.
The man was trying to get to St. Cloud. He had wandered away from his son’s Duluth home, where he was living. After he opened up to Filipovich, she called his family, and they came and picked him up.
“These are not wow, front-page stories, but they happen frequently in the city,” Nagorski says. “When we have someone acting erratically on the street, we give it to [filipovich]. Sometimes when police officers show up, it gets people thinking they’re in trouble, they’re going to jail, it amps them up. She has a good ability to calm them down.”
A team effort
In her first year, Filipovich handled more than 150 cases. Though most of her cases are police referrals, it’s up to the people she visits to decide if they want her help. Sometimes she works with people for a short time; other times she reconnects people with social service professionals who were already familiar with them. And some people just need to be directed to an agency that can offer help.
“A lot of times I work as a collaborative with other partner agencies,” Filipovich says. “It’s a team effort.”
When police called her about a man who was yelling at an ATM downtown, Filipovich found he was a diagnosed schizophrenic. He went to the hospital for evaluation, and she worked on getting him a long-term case manager, housing, and medication. Going forward, she plans to periodically check on him.
In another case, a woman had been arrested for theft after stealing from the apartment building she’d been evicted from. She also had mental illness.
The woman stayed with a friend, and Filipovich connected her with adult rehab mental health services to try to help her develop the skills to live independently while getting support for her mental health. “Every day is a little different,” Filipovich says. “I think it’s a big impact, to see social workers and police work together. I know where to go; the police have contact with everyone. They have so many calls a day, but sometimes they need a little help.”
Curran says Filipovich has educated police on social work details, like what it takes to commit someone to a mental health institution. She has also worked on building trust with “high-use individuals”—people with mental health issues who have repeated police contact.
“She really is the right person for the job,” Curran says. “She’s given police another option. One of the best things is her short-term case management. Not everyone needs help for life. Sometimes she just directs people to the help they need now.”
Though Nagorski says the police-county partnership is still “a huge work in progress,” he has no doubt it is doing good for both people in the community and the police department. “We all hope to save the world, but that’s not really possible. If you can make your chunk of the world better for a day, you’ve done your job,” Nagorski says. “I think this [program] is highly effective. We’re never going to be mental health experts. Now, we just call Ona.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
Read the Nov-Dec issue of Minnesota Cities magazine
* By posting you are agreeing to the LMC Comment Policy.