Upper Valley towns work to create social worker position

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/7/2021 9:38:58 PM
Modified: 3/7/2021 9:38:57 PM

LEBANON — Several Upper Valley communities are in talks to create a regional social worker position that would bridge the gap between first responders, social service agencies and people in their care.

The social worker could help people connect with mental health resources, long-term care and nonprofits that assist the needy, according to Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland.

The post also would work alongside Lebanon’s newly created community paramedic and nursing programs, school counselors, and New Hampshire’s soon-to-be-formed mental health response teams.

“The idea is to create a network of different services to meet the needs of the community,” Mulholland said in a phone interview on Friday.

It makes more sense and is cheaper to help people in their homes and within the community, rather than allowing problems to fester to the point where they have to be addressed at an emergency room, he added.

Lebanon is spearheading efforts to create the social worker job, which also could serve Canaan, Enfield, Hanover, Hartford and Norwich.

Mulholland said it’s not yet clear how those municipalities would fund the job, and whether they would seek grants or donations to defray costs. However, he’s optimistic an agreement will be reached.

Efforts to create a regional social worker date back to at least 2014 when a group of municipalities explored the idea but couldn’t agree on costs, according to Canaan Town Administrator Mike Samson.

There weren’t enough interested towns to make the program sustainable and it never came to fruition, he said.

“The need is huge,” Samson said, adding he and other town leaders are getting on board this time around.

Samson sees the position working similarly to town welfare or human services departments, finding creative ways to help people obtain housing, food assistance and other aid. It also could maintain ties to groups that specialize in getting people back on their feet.

“It’s a person who would help identify and help match up resources to people,” he said.

Talks to create the social worker post coincide with calls from activists and residents throughout the region for towns and cities to beef up their response to homelessness, mental health crises and other societal problems.

In Lebanon, members of the Upper Valley chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America last year proposed cutting the city’s policing budget in half to invest in more “critical community needs,” including a mental health response unit that would help respond to 911 calls. (Lebanon residents on Tuesday will vote on a nonbinding article to do away with the school resource officer.)

During Hanover’s 2020 Town Meeting and Hartford’s yearly budgeting process, some residents in those towns, in response to the police killing of George Floyd and the surge of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, also pressed for more spending on social services rather than police. Hartford has had a social worker embedded within its police department since 2016.

While activists’ calls to cut police funding in favor of social services were largely rebuffed, there is progress being made to create more resources for those in need.

For instance, Lebanon plans to roll out its full-time community paramedic position and a community nursing program this spring. Both are part of a recently inked deal with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, which will provide more than $715,000 in funding over three years for the positions.

In a separate initiative, West Central Behavioral Health is also anticipating state funding for a mobile crisis response team this summer. The team would go to those experiencing a mental health crisis, assisting first responders and treating people outside of a hospital or clinical setting.

“The old emergency service system was really designed to be more reactive, meaning we helped people once they made it to the emergency room,” said West Central CEO Roger Osmun.

Because of the nonprofit’s large coverage area — from Unity to Orford — Osmun also hopes to work with Lebanon, other municipal partners and donors to seek additional funding to supplement whatever the state provides. Ideally, he wants professionals to be able to respond to a crisis within 30 minutes, which would likely require teams to be stationed in Lebanon and Claremont.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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