Law enforcement, mental health care converge as jail diversion programs expand

Dakota Antelman
Community Advocate
November 21, 2017

Police and social workers have been working together to address the convergence of mental health care and law enforcement in Marlborough for nearly a decade. As the mental health crisis deepens, organizers hope to expand the Jail Diversion Program that facilitates that cooperation.

The program places social workers in police departments for the primary purpose of helping officers find alternatives to arresting mentally ill people for otherwise minor offenses. According to Program Director Sarah Abbott, it may also soon add a second clinician in Marlborough and add an entirely new regional program spanning Hudson and Sudbury.

“If [the police] want to divert someone from arrest, they can,” Abbott said. “They would use us to do that. But because we are embedded in the department, we can do a lot more then divert people from arrest.”

Organized by Advocates Inc., the Marlborough program currently pays for one full-time mental health clinician to ride with police to assist officers. The clinician can de-escalate confrontational situations, conduct mental health assessments both before and after an arrest, and coordinate with sufferers of mental illnesses or their families to find treatment among other things.

In Marlborough, the program has become crucial in responding to increasing drug overdose rates in recent years.

“A lot of times the person who has overdosed might not want help or doesn’t want any assistance but the family does and they don’t know where to turn,” said Marlborough Police Chief David Giorgi. “If our clinician can go in the next day, she’ll say ‘These are the recourses. These are the things we can do.’ It kind of gives more of a personal side to it.”

The program got its start in Framingham in 2003 and has since added a program in Watertown and a regional program based in Ashland. The program expanded to Marlborough in 2008 after a sergeant heard about Abbott’s success as Framingham’s clinician at the time.

“They reached out to me and said ‘we’re interested in this model,’” she said. “So we set up a meeting with the Marlborough Chief Mark Leonard. We just started talking. They were into it. So we put the funding together and we were able to launch it.”

Years after its start in the city, Marlborough residents are grateful for the program. In particular, Kathy Leonard, who runs MetroWest Hope, a support group for families of drug addicts, celebrated the program’s ability to connect addicts with care.