Social work outreach team starts accepting referrals from South Orange police, rescue squad

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The outreach team of the Community Care & Justice program in South Orange officially began receiving referrals from the South Orange Police Department and South Orange Rescue Squad on Monday, Oct. 18.

The Community Care & Justice program was initiated by South Orange Village President Sheena Collum and is a collaboration between the South Orange community, Seton Hall University and Essex County. The initiative seeks to reimagine traditional models of law enforcement through the larger lens of public safety and wellness with a greater emphasis on crisis prevention. To that end, Community Care & Justice seeks to engage the whole community — residents, first responders and newly hired social work professionals — in a more proactive, preventative and collective approach to mental health and wellness, and public health and safety. The program is led by South Orange Trustee Donna Coallier, who chairs the village’s Health and Public Safety Committee, and Juan Rios, director of SHU’s Master of Social Work program.

Having started Oct. 18, the outreach team is now providing supportive counseling and case management services to community members impacted by as mental health issues, substance use, domestic violence, sexual assault, homelessness and elder concerns.

Once a referral is received from village first responders, the social work team will outreach to the individual and/or family, conduct an assessment, and connect them with various supportive services and resources within South Orange and, more broadly, Essex County and the state.

“We’re extremely excited to get started on this aspect of our community outreach,” said SHU professor Kristin Miller, director of outreach and community wellness for the Community Care & Justice program. “In many instances the police and rescue squad are called upon to address issues that present as acute and emergent, but are in many ways deep-seated, systemic and long-term. Issues (involving) mental health, substance use, homelessness, sexual assault and domestic violence are often better served by addressing these matters in a way that gets to the root of the problem and offers care and resources for underlying issues, not just currently manifest symptoms.

“Social work training provides us with the knowledge and expertise to more effectively address certain issues in the community,” she continued. “Our team will infuse social work values into our service to community members; these values include social justice, the importance of human relationships, and the dignity and worth of each person.”

In addition to Miller and Assistant Director of Community Care & Justice Megan O’Brien, the outreach team includes three social work interns: Christina May from New York University, Monica Doliscat from Rutgers University and Krystal Halim from Seton Hall.

“In many ways, Oct. 18 marks another beginning for Community Care & Justice after months of planning, focus groups and community outreach for needs assessment,” Coallier said. “The first iteration of our Social Justice Certificate program began at Seton Hall a few weeks ago. That program brings members of the community and surrounding communities together with police officers and credible messengers ‘to learn from each other and empower its participants as stakeholders and changemakers in search of social justice and equity.’ So, although the outreach team will initially consist of two part-time social workers and three interns and can focus solely on referrals from first responders, we plan on ultimately expanding our team and these services and will eventually accept referrals from other organizations, as well as (from) community members themselves.”

The program has the support of the South Orange Police Department, as well as the South Orange Rescue Squad. Among the rescue squad, four members have volunteered to function as liaisons to the Community Care & Justice program and will function as a key partner to the program through referrals and support. SORS Chief Victor Rothstein and Deputy Chief Annie Carman will function as primary points of contact and liaisons for the program.

“The rescue squad is very excited to be a part of this outreach,” Rothstein said. “What EMS offers patients is essentially a Band-Aid fix in most cases, a stabilization of acute illness and injury until we can get the patient to a hospital. Although our EMTs are considered some of the most capable in the state, many times patients need long-term assistance that we do not and cannot provide. In fact, frequently we get called to individuals who don’t actually need medical attention per se, but still need some form of professional help or access to resources. In these cases, the social workers that the CC&J program provides will make more of a difference than any ambulance or hospital could. We have been hoping for a program like this for a very long time and the Community Care & Justice Outreach Team is major progress in ensuring the residents of South Orange can survive and thrive.”

Among the SOPD, four officers have volunteered to be liaisons to the program and are expected to be instrumental in aligning the department with the outreach team through referrals, support and, if need be, assistance. The police officers who have volunteered to work with the program are: Lt. Ernesto Morillo; Sgt. John Niedzinski; Sgt. Richard Lombardi; and Capt. Stephen Dolinac, who is currently acting police chief. 

“The South Orange Police Department is exceedingly pleased to be a part of this program, which gives us the opportunity to partner with social workers and other dedicated community members and truly improve the services we deliver in ways that go beyond traditional law enforcement,” Dolinac said. “Perhaps not surprisingly, the research to date on policing in this manner shows real efficacy.

“Simply put, we’ll be addressing systemic problems experienced by members of the community with systemic solutions. And we believe there are real savings to be had through utilizing this approach — savings in lives, quality of life and resources,” he continued. “Ultimately, we’d like to get to the point where we’re able to pinpoint need and bring resources to our residents before crisis, especially for our youth.”

“This is a new day in policing and South Orange is prepared to meet these challenges if not lead the way,” Morillo said. “The overwhelming majority of our calls are not about ‘fighting crime,’ but about responding to crisis and ensuring the well-being of our community members. I have great faith that my officers meet these challenges with courtesy, professionalism, and a commitment to serve and protect. But in order to do this job correctly — to serve the public well-being in the best way possible — we need to use all of the tools at our disposal, and committed social workers and community interventions can be a highly effective tool for delivering the hope, help and resources that people need. 

“If contact with police is limited to enforcement and addressing conflict, then many in the community will view police as an oppressive force and not as the providers of what most of our interactions actually deal with, which is community caretaking,” he continued. “Of course, officers will address conflict and enforcement as required, but we must do more to engage the community in a positive way and cultivate the trust that our citizens should have in us to take care of our community together.”