BUILDING A COMMUNITY OF TRUST by Lela Moore
Maplewood’s social workers provide individualized crisis care to their neighbors.
After the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, the question of how law enforcement could better respond to crisis situations became a political hot button. Incorporating social workers into crisis response, it was said, could help build trust in communities where suspicion of the police often overrode any sense of security, and reduce the likelihood that an encounter with an individual in crisis would result in the use of police force.
Maplewood talked the talk, and then walked the walk.
After studying the issue in the fall of 2020, the Township Committee in December unanimously approved hiring a crisis intervention social worker. The idea, said Mayor Dean Dafis, who was one of the committee members leading the 2020 effort, was “that certain community vulnerabilities were better suited for intervention by social services support rather than law enforcement response.”
In April of last year, the committee hired Marthe Eustache as its first crisis intervention social worker. This year they added Dina Pressel, who works part-time. Pressel’s position is funded by settlement funds from the State of New Jersey that are intended to help municipalities combat opioid abuse.
Both Eustache and Pressel are employed by Maplewood’s Department of Health, and neither is under police oversight. They do collaborate closely with the Maplewood Police Department and the South Essex Fire Department. They have an office at Town Hall, but spend time at the police headquarters on Springfield Avenue. As Albert Sally, Maplewood’s chief of police explains, the department has “power Wednesdays” in which nearly every officer on the force is working one of three shifts. The social worker can meet with all the lineups on Wednesdays and participate in trainings with them.
Candice Davenport, Maplewood’s health officer, says the Community Board on Police was instrumental in implementing the co-response system utilized by the township. The Community Board on Police did not want a social worker embedded with the police department; in the co-response system, Eustache and Pressel are dispatched from Town Hall, but respond to calls at the behest of the police.
“We have a great relationship with the police department,” Eustache says. “With the relationships we’ve formed, they know that they can rely on me, and I know I can rely on them.” She praises the trust she has gained within the department.
“My philosophy,” says Sally, “is that if there’s a person who can handle [a crisis situation], I don’t mind handing off to them.”
In her first year on the job, Dafis said, Eustache was able to divert over 150 cases away from law enforcement engagement. With the addition of Pressel, he says, “we can do more.”
When a call comes in that police feel warrants a social worker’s presence, police arrive at the scene first to secure it. “The police officers and SEFD are continuously assessing the situation for safety – something I count on and truly appreciate,” Pressel says.
Then, Eustache or Pressel (one of whom is on duty at all times) will arrive to assess the crisis. Sally says that the police department might see the same people on the same types of calls over and over, and that the social workers can build relationships with those people by responding with the police. “We might see someone who is unhoused five or six times,” Sally says, and the individual will not accept help from the police. “But on the seventh time,” he says, Eustache or Pressel may convince that person to accept help, whether that is mental health care or references to social service agencies. The social workers’ presence with the police, says Sally, helps people “trust that we’re not just out there to arrest.” Further, the co-response model Maplewood uses has attracted attention both in New Jersey and around the country.
Eustache and Pressel handle cases involving people experiencing emotional disturbance, substance abuse, hoarding, domestic violence, and homelessness, “to name a few,” Dafis says.
Her clients, Eustache says, range from adolescent to geriatric. Sometimes she works with students struggling with mental health, part of what she acknowledges is a widespread crisis among young people following the pandemic, remote school, and isolation from social settings. They work closely with the South Orange-Maplewood School District.
“The guidance counselors are very receptive, and they know when to call [us],” Eustache says, but that relationship is “a work in progress. We’re still trying to build and nurture that relationship.” With school opening this past month, she anticipates receiving more calls from the district.
Other times, Eustache is working with adults dealing with life stressors like post-Covid anxiety, rising rents, or employment struggles. The oldest clients she sees are often retired and feel isolated; they may be confined to their homes and struggle with that.
Eustache grew up in Maplewood and graduated from Columbia High School, and still lives in town. Pressel and her husband have lived in Maplewood for 17 years and raised their two sons here.
That local connection, both say, has enriched their work.
“Living in Maplewood, there were a lot of things that I was not aware of,” says Eustache. “And after working here for a year, I realized that mental health is definitely a primary concern within the town.”
“We love this community and I’m so proud to be working for our Health Department. As both a resident and an employee of the town, I have the opportunity to see and learn more about how our local government works,” says Pressel.
Eustache’s family is Haitian-American, and Eustache is bilingual in English and Haitian Creole. Essex County is home to tens of thousands of Haitian Americans. Eustache says that, in her experience, in Haitian culture, “mental health is taboo. You can clearly tell when someone is going through something, but they kind of just go on with life and suppress it.”
Eustache did not intentionally pursue social work until she ended up in an introduction to sociology class at the College of New Jersey. “I fell in love with it,” she says.
Both Eustache and Pressel have spent the bulk of their careers helping people with mental health care needs. Eustache received her masters in social work (MSW) from Seton Hall University in 2020. Since then, she has worked as a clinician and assistant program coordinator at an adolescent group home and at Trinitas Hospital in Elizabeth, where she worked with New Jersey’s Involuntary Outpatient Commitment program, which provides mental health treatment to individuals who have been ordered by a court to seek that treatment. In that job she worked with many immigrants who, like her, had grown up without speaking about mental health issues. “Just being able to advocate for them, being able to shed light and giving them that safe space,” Eustache says. “[Saying], ‘It’s OK to talk about it. I’m here. I understand.’”
Pressel worked in other fields but returned to university to get her MSW when her children were in school. “I knew I wanted to pursue work that was both fulfilling to me and helpful to others,” she says. In addition to her work in an alcohol and drug detox program, Pressel brought another valuable skill to Maplewood – experience working with municipal governments and in coordinating municipal alliance grants focusing on mental health and the prevention of substance abuse disorders.
It is impossible to provide a simple answer about Eustache and Pressel’s daily routine, both agreed. “The type of situations we encounter are so varied and the assistance we provide is so individualized,” Pressel says. “It’s very dependent upon a person’s immediate needs.”
Dafis says that the township’s long-term goal for the social workers is to have them become an independent department that will be able to respond to calls through its own mobile unit and dispatch.
For now, Eustache and Pressel do not take direct calls unless it is from someone who needs help applying for social services. Eustache advises that if you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, first call 911. “The [police or EMS] can go and assess for safety first,” Eustache says. The first responders will then request that either Eustache or Pressel respond to the call as well.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal ideation, Pressel says, you should call 988, the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. You can also access them online at 988lifeline.org.
Lela Moore is a freelance journalist in Maplewood covering local government.