The Brown School is partnering with the city of St. Louis in “Social Workers for St. Louis,” an innovative new program aimed at hiring social workers and public health professionals to intervene in non-violent situations such as mental-health crises as an alternative to the criminal justice system. The city plans to hire 20-30 social workers beginning next month. The Brown School will help recruit workers, provide professional development for them, and partner in the ongoing planning of the program.
“I believe that social workers are miracle workers,” St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said in describing the initiative during a panel discussion on Aug. 25 that was part of the Brown School’s Open Classroom series. “I was excited to find ways to partner with Washington University to bring more social workers into our city government.”
“I’ve often said we have to put the ‘public’ back in public safety,” Jones said. “This is an innovative program aimed at integrating mental and behavioral health into public safety.”
“Normal hasn’t worked for many of our residents for years,” she added. “We are looking to disrupt and transform our current public safety system to one that is outward-looking and helps people. The social workers will help the city by connecting people to the right resources and hopefully, fewer people will be involved in the criminal justice system.” She said the social workers will also support city services including public health, victim support, homeless aid and pretrial screening.
Mary McKay, Neidorff Family and Centene Corporation Dean of the Brown School, said social workers are trained to understand individual trauma and mental health issues, as well as root causes of problems that affect entire communities. “They’re going to bring a lens of ‘how do we help individuals’ but also ‘how do we also really change what happens to a population?’” she said. “Social workers are disruptive,” she added. They use their tools and skills to try to change the way programs are developed and delivered, and really change business as usual. That’s what you ran on,” she told Jones, “and that’s a very important match for our community.”
“Social workers are trained to tackle issues that are hard to talk about,” McKay said, citing racial equity as an example. “It’s important that we tackle issues that are incredibly important to our city and that are holding us back.” Universities can provide evidence-based approaches and test them, she said. She cautioned that finding the right approaches to make a difference in longstanding issues will not happen overnight. “We are trying to address an urgent, overdue matter,” said McKay. “To deeply understand the root causes and the contextual considerations that really need to inform something new, we have to take the time to really be sure that we understand.”
“These are solvable challenges,” she said. “There are a lot of us who are really wanting to work together in new ways.”
The Brown School will help develop a diverse pool of social workers and service coordinators from a wide variety of backgrounds, including the fields of social work, public health, human services, sociology, mental health, psychology, and criminal justice. The program design has not been finalized and the city will work with the School and other community partners to successfully integrate social workers to support different areas of city government.
Another panelist from the Brown School, Sean Joe, said well-trained social workers with broad expertise will help the city improve its public-safety response system. “We’re going to have a great reduction in criminalizing behavior health and mental health issues,” said Joe, the Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor of Social Development. “It makes a difference when you match the right provider to the need.”
Joe says the program will succeed by reducing the number of non-criminal issues that police have to deal with. “It frees up public safety officers to better address crime and people’s sense of personal safety,” he said. He echoed McKay’s observation that university partners will help by applying social science to find out what works, scale it up and sustain solutions over time. “Data-driven decisions are the cornerstone,” he said.
He added that he hopes the program will build multiple venues for the community to express their sense of fairness and concern for their personal safety. “We’re in a unique opportunity as a region … to support and extend the reach of care to young people,” said Joe, who called it “an opportunity to do something no other city has done.”
Serena Muhammad, deputy director of the St. Louis Mental Health Board (MHB), emphasized the importance of listening to community advocates to understand the causes and impact of violence. She serves with the St. Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission.
The initiative will be similar to the commission’s work identifying a proven strategy and then testing it in St. Louis with diverse communities. “People who live in neighborhoods where they’re hearing gunshots as a part of their normal daily noise, their solutions are different from those who go home to peace and quiet every night,” she said. Muhammad said the new program can help strengthen police legitimacy in the community, so residents believe police are honest and trying to protect them. She said the city’s Public Safety Department has committed to listening sessions with community members.
“We have to be very serious about listening to what the community is telling us and act accordingly,” she said. “Our focus has to be on those most vulnerable.” She added that a diverse group of social workers is key to the success of the project. “Lived experience is important,” she said. “We need licensed clinical social workers who are Black males. There are so many families who are hesitant to reach out for services because there’s no one who looks like them who’s going to be at the other end of the call.”
Jones noted that similar approaches to public safety have worked in Denver, where some 9-1-1 calls are redirected to mental health practitioners or social workers, or in Eugene OR, which has been using a similar strategy for over 30 years. “There’s plenty of data and resources that show this works across the country,” she said.
She said the city and Violence Prevention Commission will be having a series of public safety town halls beginning Sept. 23 to hear from city residents about how to reduce violence. “People closest to the problems are closest to the solutions,” she said. Jones added that the new strategy to include social workers has nothing to do with “defunding the police.”
“The changes we are proposing will free up our officers to do the work that they were trained to do and to get other training,” she said. “This is a way to disrupt but also to transform our public safety system for the better.”