Ashfield spearheads grant-funded co-response program in hilltowns


Staff Writer
Published: 7/6/2022 2:53:22 PM
Modified: 7/6/2022 2:50:43 PM

ASHFIELD — Following in the footsteps of other area towns, a group of hilltowns is using a $199,999 grant to fund a mental health clinician who will respond alongside police officers to certain emergency situations.

While Ashfield is the lead town for the purpose of the grant application, the shared mental health clinician will also serve Buckland, Shelburne, Goshen, Colrain, Conway, Plainfield, Rowe, Heath, Monroe and Hawley. The grant, available through the Department of Mental Health, was awarded on June 14.

Beth Bezio, chief of police in Ashfield, hopes the program will start in about a month, and noted police are still in the planning stages. As has been done in other local towns, the clinician would be provided through Clinical & Support Options (CSO), a nonprofit behavioral health agency based in Northampton.

“This is a more comprehensive and appropriate response to responding to the needs of the community,” commented Jennifer LaRoche, CSO’s vice president of acute and day programs.

The types of calls clinicians co-respond to include domestic disputes/violence, people making suicidal statements, and family crises where a parent might be unable to control a child, according to LaRoche.

Deerfield, Greenfield and Montague were the first towns in Franklin County to join together and receive the grant from the Department of Mental Health to support co-response services starting in May 2021, and police say the results have been promising. For example, of the 182 completed evaluations the Greenfield Police Department conducted from May 2021 to April 2022, 119 people, or 65%, were diverted from being arrested or being brought to the hospital during a mental health crisis, according to acting Greenfield Police Chief William Gordon. Without this partnership with CSO, Gordon previously said they “would have had no other option” than to bring someone to the hospital.

As co-response efforts continue to bear fruit, other towns in the county and throughout the Pioneer Valley have followed suit. At the beginning of May, the Erving Police Department partnered with the Gill, Bernardston, Northfield, Wendell, Leverett and Warwick departments. Additionally, Northampton, Amherst, Hadley and Easthampton have taken steps to implement a co-responder program.

“This program is all about building community and helping people out,” Bezio said, later adding that “it was an in-depth application, but it was worth it.”

For the group of hilltowns launching their own program, a 40-hour-per-week, full-time mental health clinician position with benefits will be paid with a majority of the grant. A rotating police officer from the involved towns will accompany the clinician.

Monroe and Hawley will also be involved in this program, even though these towns do not have their own police departments. The State Police officers who serve these towns will be included for the co-response program. According to LaRoche, this is the first time CSO has worked with State Police troopers.

Currently, CSO’s emergency service program receives weekly calls from police, schools and local residents for emergencies in these towns. With a closer clinician, they will be able to get appropriate care faster, according to LaRoche.

“We are trying to re-educate the community on how to get the right services at the right time,” LaRoche said. “It’s not always calling 911 and not everyone knows that.”

The program still needs to hire a clinician with the proper experience. LaRoche said CSO does not expect there to be difficulties with hiring.

The grant will also be used to buy a different uniform for the police officer who will accompany the CSO clinician. This uniform will include a polo shirt, according to Bezio.

“The new uniform will be less intimidating,” Bezio said.

At a recent Select Board meeting in Buckland, when the board approved joining the co-response program, Town Administrator Heather Butler said, “This addressed some of the concerns in our Select Board mission that we haven’t been able to achieve. It is a great first step.”

When asked what this program means for the future of policing, Bezio said, “Policing is never going to stop. This program provides more resources to help us serve our community.”

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