The Columbus Dispatch
Civilian team responds to nonemergency calls
Clinicians, counselors use empathy to help
Blue bullet-proof vests hang on a rack by the door. Across the room, emergency alert buttons sit on a shelf.
The safety measures are mandatory, given the vulnerable and often unpredictable population that this special team of trained civilians serve. But the team at Netcare Access rely most of all on their empathy when called upon daily to deal with those struggling with behavioral health issues or suffering with addiction.
For a little more than three months, a team of eight licensed clinicians and peer support counselors from Netcare Access, a nonprofit mental health and substance abuse provider, have been responding to nonemergency situations in Franklin County. Envisioned as a viable alternative response in certain 911 situations, the service comes at a time when the idea of social workers responding
to nonthreatening calls without police is gaining traction among the public.
“These are sick people who need help, and we’re giving them help,” said Lauren Talbott, a peer support specialist who is part of the new mobile crisis response team formed by Netcare Access.
The pilot program, which began at the end of January, launched a little more than a year after a partnership ended between Netcare and the city of
Columbus in which its clinicians responded with police to certain 911 calls.
While the city now has a similar initiative pairing Columbus Public Health clinicians with police officers, Netcare officials are hoping to prove that their model can work without the presence of law enforcement altogether.
“Police officers are making all kinds of other calls, all other runs all day long,” said Heidi Hess, director for community-based services at Netcare. “I think we’re able to respond and serve folks in the community who don’t need a police presence, and it just offers another viable alternative to linking people with health services.”
In the past four months, the Community Mobile Team at Netcare has been dispatched on more than 100 runs. And leaders say interest is growing, as runs have increased by about 25% each month as word of the service spreads.
Composed of four licensed clinicians and four peer support specialists, the team works daily from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. from a small room in Netcare’s West Side building on South Central Avenue
in the city’s Franklinton area.
Instead of being dispatched through 911, though, Netcare draws calls from three other sources: the agency’s own line at 614-276-2273; the Franklin County homeless hotline at 614-274-7000; and the recently-created national 988 suicide and crisis hotline — all of which are managed by Netcare’s dispatchers who work remotely.
If Netcare dispatchers determine that a situation is reasonably safe and if the caller or a concerned family member gives consent, then the mobile crisis team may be dispatched to respond, Hess said. Team members all wear protective equipment, but so far, they say, it hasn’t been needed.
In most cases, the responding clinician will develop a treatment plan with clients to help them manage their mental health or addiction concerns. The team can also provide transportation — using three 2022 Honda Accord hybrids that are outfitted with plexiglass dividers and recording devices — to clients who agree to seek a higher level of care if necessary, Hess said.
One recent client who spoke to The Dispatch on condition that he would not be named said he met with the team earlier this month after calling the homeless hotline on May 9. Unemployed and living out of his car, the man said he had been struggling with suicidal thoughts and didn’t know where else to turn.
He said the team met him at a park in Franklin County, where they were able to help him obtain temporary shelter at Netcare’s crisis stabilization unit at its headquarters, where he can stay for up to 10 days while he works with a social worker to identify his next steps.
“They really listened to me. I didn’t feel any judgment, and it’s exactly what I needed in the moment,” he said. “It was like they didn’t want to leave without helping me.”
The pilot program is funded through a $1.1 million investment from the Alcohol Drug and Mental Health (ADAMH) Board of Franklin County, whose leaders saw the value in a crisis response that did not always require the presence of first-responders, said Meg Griffing, ADAMH senior director of provider relations.
“A behavioral health response does not always need to involve EMS or police first-responders when there is no lifethreatening medical emergency or imminent threat of violence,” Griffing said. “These mobile response teams are important because they meet people where they are, with the most appropriate response for an individual’s situation, and ensure better care and timely access for all persons.”
In the wake of the 2020 racial injustice protests in Columbus and around the country, the public has increasingly indicated support for alternative response programs that exclude armed police during calls regarding mental health crises, drug overdoses or homelessness.
City leaders in 2021 commissioned a study finding that a majority of the respondents thought that social service and mental health professionals could respond to many of the nonviolent 911 calls once routinely handled by police, freeing officers up to handle more serious 911 calls.
Among the programs the city rolled out in 2021 is a pilot program begun last year called the Right Response Unit — a team consisting of a dispatcher, a Columbus Public Health social worker and a city Division of Fire paramedic — which is embedded in the 911 dispatch center to review calls for potential alternate, nonpolice responses.
The city also has a Mobile Crisis Response Unit, which pairs a police officer trained in crisis intervention with mental health and substance abuse clinicians.
Jointly funded and staffed by Columbus Public Health and the Columbus Department of Public Safety, those two programs had a combined budget this year of $3.1 million, according to the public safety department.
Through May 9, the Mobile Crisis Response Unit had handled 1,310 calls for service so far this year, none of which resulted in an arrest, according to city data.
Of the 2,826 calls for service associated with the Right Response Unit between June 1, 2021 and Dec. 28, 2022, the unit resolved 802 events, resulting in a 28% reduction in police responses on mental health runs, according to the most recent city data available.
“We know there is a tremendous and growing need for services in the mental health space, and we are committed to supporting our residents in crisis and connecting them with the resources they need,” Glenn Mcentyre, the assistant director and spokesman for the Columbus Department of Public Safety, said in an email.
Many of those on Netcare’s new mobile crisis team once worked with the city’s Mobile Crisis Response Unit before the partnership came to an end. The silver lining of the new program, they say, is that without the presence of police who must rush from one call to the next, now they have more time to spend on calls with patients.
Shawn Daniels, a licensed clinician who is the manager for Netcare’s mobile team, said calls often last a matter of hours and the team also can follow up for up to 14 days until patients get their first mental health or drug intake appointment.
That contrasts with the city’s Mobile Crisis Response Unit, which Mcentyre said does some nonemergency followup in the form of linkage to resources and follow-up phone calls based on need, but does not continue with case management.
And rather than arriving with a police officer, which they say can be intimidating to many in crisis, the Netcare clinicians are accompanied by peer support specialists like Talbott, who’s own lived experience with mental health struggles or substance abuse helps them relate to the clients.
“The darkest times of my life can be used to help other people find a way out,” Talbott said. “I feel like we’re making a difference, and I feel like the vision behind this program is beautiful.” email@example.com @Ericlagatta