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Pa. county officials review effectiveness of crisis response program for mental health emergencies

Delaware County officials look at a pilot program using mental health professionals, certified peer specialists as a fourth emergency service



By Alex Rose
Daily Times

HAVERFORD, Pa. — Elected officials, police chiefs, emergency responders and mental health experts converged at the Haverford Township municipal building Monday morning to discuss the effectiveness and next steps of a pilot program that has been sending “mobile crisis teams” to assist police in situations where a person may be suffering from a mental health emergency.

The program, funded by a $650,000 grant secured by U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon last year, has so far resulted in about 100 responses since the program began in earnest in May, according to District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer.

“This is an example of law enforcement being proactive, thinking ahead,” Stollsteimer said. “Delaware County law enforcement in the 21st century recognizes that a lot of the people that we’re required to go out and to deal with when we go out on calls are people who are suffering from mental health issues, and we don’t always have the tools to deal with them appropriately.”

Emergency Services Director Timothy Boyce said that people calling 911 in the past only had three choices: Police, fire or ambulance. This now adds a fourth option: Mental health services.

Stollsteimer, a Democrat running for reelection against Republican former Assistant District Attorney Beth Stefanide-Miscichowski in the November Municipal Election Nov. 7, briefly described how the program works, before the closed-door meeting.

The crisis teams, made up of trained mental health professionals from Elwyn are embedded in the Upper Darby and Haverford police departments now — the two largest municipalities in the county — to build relationships with officers there, Stollsteimer said.

The idea is that officers will request assistance when they are on a call and determine mental health services are required. Part of Monday’s discussion was going to focus on whether that model makes the most sense, Stollsteimer said, as well as how follow-up teams are faring and where the program can improve.

Lisa Noe, director of Crisis Co-Response Services for Elwyn, said the program had spent approximately $191,000 since coming online May 1.

It consists of two components.

The first is a Crisis Co-Response team staffed by mental health professionals and certified peer specialists operating in two two-person shifts Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 2 to 10 p.m.

The second is the Outreach Specialist Team, staffed by certified peer specialists and certified recovery specialists operating Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Noe said one big advantage has been the ability to create appropriate diversions for people otherwise receiving ineffective services or no services at all, especially for those having recurring contacts with law enforcement.

These repeated calls also allow the outreach team to follow up and ensure people are keeping up with services.

“As a behavioral health organization that represents shaping distinctive and meaningful lives for individuals in our community, we are proud to be a part of this collective initiative in providing crisis co-response services and believe that our relationship with law enforcement will provide a powerful dynamic for positive changes,” said Noe. “While aiming to create a culture of shared social responsibility, support, authenticity, and hope, we are committed to transforming the face of behavioral health as a united force and are grateful to be able and assist our police departments in this impactful and exciting endeavor.”


Scanlon said she was also grateful for the ability to secure the grant through the community project funding process in Congress and was heartened hear that the pilot program seems to have been successful so far.

“Far too often, we see tragic consequences when communities don’t have the tools they need to address someone who’s having a mental health crisis, and it’s not responsive or fair to anyone when we force our police officers to be the only person responding in those situations,” she said.

Scanlon said she has a bill that has gone through Congress with the support of the White House to provide ongoing funding for areas that develop mental health response units and embed them within 911 call systems.

“We’re hoping we can move that along once we get Congress up and running again, but in the meantime, we’re really encouraged to see Delaware County stepping up and taking the lead on this,” she said. “We’ve seen good data from other communities, so we know this is something that can work and we’re really, really thrilled to see our community be at the forefront with this.”

Delaware County Council Vice Chair Elaine Paul Schaefer said council is enthusiastically behind the program because everyone agrees it is a “no-brainer” to keep people in crisis out of the criminal justice system from the start and divert them to mental health care instead.

“I want to say that we all hope that this sets such a good example that we can make this happen in all of our municipalities, all over Pennsylvania,” she said. “And some of that ongoing funding that Congresswoman Scanlon was talking about, we’ll be looking for that to make this program successful everywhere.”

Haverford Police Chief John Viola said mental health crises are one of the most consistent issues police officers face day to day throughout the country and dealing with those individuals ties up a lot of resources for departments.

He said having the additional tool of mental health partners who can assist has been a boon to his officers and allows them to do a to better job keeping people safe.

Upper Darby Police Superintendent Timothy Bernhardt also thanked Scanlon for securing the funding, as well as the mental health professionals for their help in making the pilot a success. He said it is something vitally needed and will be a part of everyday policing going forward.

“Mental health is a great concern,” Bernhardt said. “Police officers today are faced with so many challenges and are asked and called upon to do so many things. This pilot program that we have here is a great initiative and a way to show that all of us are working together to make positive changes.”

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