Monday, June 24, 2024

Cambridge Community Safety Department head Liz Speakman at a community meeting held July 20 in The Port neighborhood. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The issue of “mandated reporters” – professionals and others who are legally bound to tell authorities if they believe a child or other vulnerable person is at risk of being abused – drew questions from officials about the operation of the city’s planned alternative to police response. The head of the city’s new Community Safety Department told city councillors Sept. 18 that the agency must obey the reporting requirement while acknowledging that “we understand deeply how the system has failed so many people, particularly poor families of color, families of lower socioeconomic status, and that [the Department of Children and Families] has not served them well.”

Trust is “so critical to the success of this team and it having the longevity that I think we all hope that it has,” vice mayor Alanna Mallon said.

It’s the newest wrinkle in the long journey toward the establishment of an unarmed response to emergency calls involving people in emotional distress and psychological crisis, who may not need help from police officers. The new department expects to start answering 911 calls in March, city officials said; that’s roughly four years after councillors approved an alternative response in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer.

Speaking of mandated reporters at a City Council meeting, Community Safety Department head Liz Speakman said she believed her entire corps of eight newly hired responders must consider themselves covered by the reporting mandate although only two are licensed clinicians, who are explicitly included. Four have worked as emergency medical technicians and four have degrees in social work or psychology. All the responders are covered because “the spirit of the law” includes “anyone who has the potential to witness a vulnerable person at risk,” Speakman said.

If a child or someone else covered by the reporting requirement is being abused, staff members would try to “build up supports around them” and file a report “as a last resort,” she said at one point. At another point, though, Speakman, herself a social worker, said: “But we know that’s a mandate, we have to do that.”

“And so we will do that in the most trauma-informed, compassionate, thoughtful, supportive way as possible. Because we understand that it often can cause harm. But we know that we have a responsibility to make sure that we are trying to protect folks as much as we can within those parameters.”

Councillor Marc McGovern, also a social worker, echoed Speakman’s conflicting feelings. McGovern said he has “files on my desk where I see certain families be treated very differently than other families, usually based on race and class when it comes to issues of abuse and neglect.” He said he hoped that the responders would be trained in “cultural competency” and that “you have to take into account people’s cultural backgrounds and a whole host of other things before filing a report.” McGovern also pointed out that making a report would not always result in DCF getting involved or in the removal of a child from the family.

Heart cites lack of city clarity

In contrast to the city department, the Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team, established by volunteers to provide a non-police response, does not use mandated reporters, said Dara Bayer of Heart. “It is central to our mission that responders not be required to report information to carceral systems. We want to make sure that our most vulnerable community members feel safe reaching out to us. This is a fundamental difference between Heart and the Community Safety Department. Their responders will be mandated reporters, which means there are a lot of community members who will not reach out to them,” Bayer said.

Heart, which had hoped to be the city’s principal alternative response organization but lost out when councillors decided to establish the city department, has received $300,000 in pandemic aid funds and is seeking more city funding. Speakman said the city is awaiting a proposal from the organization.

According to Speakman, Heart did tell the city “what they were interested in receiving from us” but never submitted a written proposal “with a budget and a scope. So yes, they did a lot of work to put together an option of what we might fund. And we talked that through and give them some suggestions for how to make it so that it would be more reasonable for us to be able to fund it.”

Bayer, however, said Heart has been trying to satisfy the city’s contract requirements for two and a half years but “has not received clear guidance about how to submit a proposal for a contract.”

“Since fall 2022, we have been given different sets of instructions on how to provide a proposal to the city and have followed the city’s direction each time, only to be told each time that it should have been done differently,” Bayer said. Instead of providing “explicit guidance” in response to Heart’s contract proposal, the city told Heart “to ask other nonprofits how they have received funding from the city,” Bayer said.

The organization expects to have a call center and dispatch center operating by late fall, which can provide “real-time emergency support over the phone,” Bayer said.  “Once this is established we will be actively working to implement mobile crisis response,” she said.

Community Safety Department prepares

Meanwhile, the Community Safety Department issued an update Sept. 27 naming its new community assistance response and engagement team and announcing that Marie Mathieu, a licensed social worker who was the public library’s first social worker, will be the department’s assistant director of clinical services.

The response team will be organized in two sections of three members each, two responders and one clinician, with two other members on backup. One section will cover calls on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and the other on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. There is no coverage before 8 a.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and before 10:30 a.m. Fridays. Coverage in the evening ends at 7:30 p.m. Mondays and 9:30 p.m. the other weekdays; there is no coverage on weekends.

“The hope is to expand the hours that the team will be available over time,” city spokesperson Jeremy Warnick said.

Training for the team started Sept. 11 and will end next month. Warnick said a “wide range of organizations” are training the responders, including the city’s community engagement team, the ImprovBoston comedy company and the Cambridge Community Dispute Mediation Center. During the training, the team will get “hands-on experience in the field,” for example, riding with police, the Pro EMS ambulance service and the First Step van serving homeless people. Later the team will get “familiar with the community through outreach, shadowing and support for places like the library and warming center,” the department said.

Calls that the department will answer include welfare checks for which no crime is suspected, drinking in public and several types of mental health calls such as someone who is suicidal. The department must get approval from state emergency medical officials to answer some other calls involving mental health and/or suicidal feelings and involving people who feel ill.