Wis. city expands mental health crisis-response program

Madison's Community Alternative Response for Emergency Services sends paramedics and crisis workers instead of police


Lucas Robinson
The Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. — A Madison pilot program that sends paramedics and crisis workers to mental health emergencies in lieu of police is now answering calls citywide as officials hope to expand the alternative to law enforcement in the months ahead.

CARES — Community Alternative Response for Emergency Services — has nearly doubled its number of responses to nonviolent mental health calls since launching in September, Deputy Mayor Katie Crawley said in a statement. In total, CARES teams, which consist of one paramedic and a Journey Mental Health crisis worker, responded to 246 calls as of mid-March, Crawley said. The average call time was 53 minutes.

Ché Stedman, an assistant fire chief and CARES supervisor, said the program is evaluating how it measures success.
Ché Stedman, an assistant fire chief and CARES supervisor, said the program is evaluating how it measures success. (Photo/Madison Fire Department)

Ché Stedman, an assistant fire chief and CARES supervisor, said the program continues to collect data and is still evaluating how it measures its success. The program tracks how many people it refers to social services, Stedman said, though the program's success can be measured in other ways, such as decreases in arrests and emergency room transits.

"If you talk to a police officer, they'll say success is diverting calls from police," Stedman said. "If you talk to a client of ours, well, a police officer didn't walk into the room. So that was great."

Originally, CARES had only responded to calls in the Central Police District, between lakes Mendota and Monona and stretching from Park Street to the Yahara River. Before going citywide, CARES teams responded to about five to six calls each day, Stedman said.

Because only one team works during a shift, not every call can get a response and instead police are sent, Stedman said. The program hopes to change that once another daily team is added this summer.

When a CARES team responds to a mental health crisis, staff de-escalate the situation, collects information on the patient's history, finds out whether they're insured and then refers them to services. Staff also follow up with patients on how they've used the services. Since the start of the program, CARES teams have only had to call for police backup five times, Stedman said.

Almost 20% of the people CARES responds to are experiencing homelessness, the city said. Half are uninsured and 64% are previous patients of Journey Mental Health.

"The big takeaway for me is the City of Madison and Dane County Human Services are doing their best to address the mental health problems in our county and our city," Stedman said. "This type of program has been shown to be best practice across the country."

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(c)2022 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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