Grant to fund social worker positions at local law enforcement agencies
A $1.2 million state grant will enhance how Orange County law enforcement agencies interact with individuals during a mental health crisis.
The grant award from the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services was finalized in January. It will create a community care and diversion response team to increase and expand pre-arrest and post-charge diversion opportunities, clinical care, peer support and person-centered case management for individuals with serious mental health issues who come into contact with law enforcement.
The program will be administered by the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department and will fund four social worker positions, one each for Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough police departments and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. The grant also funds a full-time mental health diversion coordinator in the Criminal Justice Resource Department and two therapeutic positions — a mental health clinician and a peer support specialist — to work at Freedom House Recovery Center in Chapel Hill.
“We are thrilled to have been awarded this grant to expand opportunities for people in our community experiencing serious mental illness so that they can be diverted from the criminal legal system,” said Caitlin Fenhagen, director of the Criminal Justice Resource Department. “Arrest and incarceration during a mental health episode can often cause more trauma and stigma and reduce the safety for all involved.
“Having social workers embedded in all our major law enforcement agencies in Orange County will help with ongoing training and understanding for officers, will help with de-escalation on calls and will allow for the warm handoff from law enforcement that diversion requires. The dedicated clinical and peer support positions in this department and at Freedom House will assist with immediate connections to treatment and peer support needs for the individuals diverted.”
The Criminal Justice Resource Department coordinator will provide supervision to the social workers embedded in the agencies and training on trauma-informed mental health interventions to the law enforcement agencies. This coordinated and collaborative team approach among clinicians, social workers, peer support and law enforcement officers will ensure greater awareness, communication and consistency in the law enforcement and treatment response to individuals with serious mental health issues who frequently interact with law enforcement agencies, courts and behavioral healthcare systems.
“Working together with the Criminal Justice Resource Department, we have collectively identified gaps in service," said Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood. "Deputies and police officers are called to many situations where mental health resources are needed but not available. This grant allows for the development of clinical services and additional training to narrow that gap. We expect these professionals to be invaluable as we collectively work to improve public safety by expanding the tools available to those experiencing a mental health crisis and those responding to one.”
The grant runs through September 2025, and formalizes another collaboration among law enforcement agencies, the Criminal Justice Resource Department and Freedom House to serve individuals at risk of criminal legal system involvement. The Community Care and Diversion Response Team will focus specifically on diverting the growing population of individuals with serious mental illness and co-occurring disorders from arrest and incarceration.