(L to R) Libby Connors, Jeff Cook, Rachel Lawler, and Assistant Director Brandi Littlefield make up the Howard Center’s community outreach team, serving six communities in Chittenden County (Courtesy photo).

The community outreach team is the goo that holds the pie together.

That is according to Brandi Littlefield, assistant director of the Howard Center community outreach team and First Call for Chittenden County.

The Howard Center’s community outreach team has served six towns in Chittenden County, including Essex and Essex Junction, since April 2018, working directly with law enforcement to aid individuals and the community with mental health needs, in crisis situations, and with the aftermath of those situations.

“Every one of us in any service area has a slice of the pie that we can hold and boundaries as to what we can do to help people,” Littlefield explained in her analogy. “But these guys are the goo in between. These guys have all of the information.”

After a year and a half, the Essex Police Department (EPD) has not seen a decrease in calls but Chief Rick Garey said that the team alleviates stress on the department and allows officers to delegate more efficiently.

“The PD has limited resources and a limited set of skills; sometimes the needs go beyond what we can control and the [community outreach] team is a huge resource in that,” said Garey, noting that mental health needs are still very present in the community and not being met. “Mental health affects everybody,” he said. “It certainly is one of the greater issues that we deal with.”

In Colchester, one of the other six towns the team services, police chief Douglas Allen sees the team as a bridge between the department and the community, able to meet many of those needs. Since the team started work in 2018, he said, “that unmet social need, that unmet mental health need is still present. But with [the team’s] services, we get people referred into the system much quicker and we get better results.”

According to Littlefield, over the last year, they’ve seen officers able to leave the scene quicker than they would have historically.

“The goal isn’t that people stop reaching out; the goal is that people reach out to the right people,” she said. “This team is able to remain with the individual that needs support and services, for as many hours as it takes to be able to get them connected to resources and to obtain that support. Obviously we can’t have officers tied up doing that; that’s really unsafe for the rest of the community. It’s beautiful that we’re able to do that.”

The community outreach team lends aid in three major capacities—diversion, assistance, and proactive work. Depending on the dispatch, police are often able to divert non-emergent or dangerous calls over to community outreach, freeing up officers to attend to more urgent cases.

Along the same lines, community outreach specialists are able to examine data and see patterns developing with individuals in the community, allowing them to be proactive in their outreach and stop harmful patterns.

According to Jeff Cook, one of the community outreach specialists, there is no average day; no average call. Calls range from domestic violence, to homeless individuals, to families recovering from the death of a loved one.

He sees this as a testament to the shared experiences people face—no one community stands out from another.

“One of the important things to know is that even though a town may have lower numbers, it does not negate that we have not had major crisis calls,” Cook said. “There are families and individuals who we have been working with for almost a year and seven months that we’ve been online. So it’s really important to know that even though the numbers may be lower, it doesn’t mean that the community doesn’t still need our help.”

When the team is not on duty, police send emails regarding questions or help with cases. “I’m so impressed with the sensitivity and the clear direction of the emails,” said Littlefield. “[For example], ‘This person needs help, I don’t have what it takes to help them but I’ve got you and I know you can help them so please help these people,’” she posed as a hypothetical. “Law enforcement doesn’t often get to be seen in that capacity.”

Garey agrees that there is no average day, but he notes that meeting mental health needs are of utmost importance in Essex—especially in light of the sizable homeless presence. “We’re not trying to just run them out of town,” he said. “Having the team be part of our network is a huge help.” In this way, Garey sees the team helping not only to lessen department stress, but to offer guidance in alternative ways of communication.

While he’s been on the job for twenty years or so, Garey sees his newer officers, fresh out of the academy who aren’t as seasoned in communicating, “learning that you don’t have to charge in like a bull in a china shop,” he said. “I think it makes them better officers.”

Allen noted his appreciation for how the team has allowed for some barriers between entities to break down in the drive to meet those social needs.  “Law enforcement doesn’t like to share their information. Social services and mental health, because of federal law, don’t share their information. Those blocks are there for a reason, but we’re able to communicate better,” said Allen.

Essex/Essex Jct. has the third highest number of contacts out of the six communities, after Winooski and So. Burlington. Recently, Cook and Allen have seen a spike in calls focused on juveniles, partly due to school kicking back into session. “We’re seeing more and more pressures on kids and pressure on families for a variety of different reasons. Certainly the opioid crisis adds that dimension to it as well,” said Allen.

Overall funding for the program comes from a University of Vermont Medical Center grant, the Department of Mental Health, and a contribution from each of the six towns. Last year, Essex contributed $47,420—about 12 percent of overall funding, and the highest contribution out of all six participating communities.

The team fills a hole that Littlefield has struggled with for years–the challenge of wanting to help people but being stopped by legal or other barriers. “We’ve had all of these people in a room who want to help somebody and we can’t get there,” she said. “This position allows us to get there.”

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