U.S. Education Secretary Cardona lauds CT students for police social work program

Photo of Ben Lambert

WILLIMANTIC — Students from Eastern Connecticut State University and beyond were recently celebrated for their efforts during the inaugural year of a project pairing young people interested in social work with police departments across the state, according to the institution.

Students involved in the Social Work and Law Enforcement program presented case studies on clients they worked with at a capstone event christened “Boots on the Ground,” officials said in the release.

The effort is likely the first specialized training program in the country that prepares social workers and police officers to work alongside one another, according to Isabel Logan, an ECSU professor and licensed clinical social worker.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who offered remarks as part of the celebration, also praised the idea.

“I’m heartened by programs like the Social Work and Law Enforcement Project,” said Cardona, a Connecticut native who comes from a family of police officers and public servants. “This program can help prevent the punishment of people with mental health challenges by connecting them with a strong support network. Through this program, people can get the long-term follow up and care they need by connecting with a trained social worker.”

Logan, co-director of the program, spearheaded the partnership with the Willimantic Police Department following the passage of the police accountability legislation in July 2020.

“As an Eastern alumnus and Willimantic police officer of nearly 18 years, I couldn’t be prouder that this project has its roots in Willimantic,” said Lt. Matthew Solak, the project’s other co-director. “It really speaks to the tenacity and to the dreams that people in our community have about working together in a community partnership that is bringing together social work students and professionals alongside law enforcement for the first time ever in the state of Connecticut.”

ECSU alumna Emily Constantino ‘21, a recent graduate of the University of Saint Joseph’s Master of Social Work program, worked with the Willimantic Police Department.

“One of her clients was a 61-year-old white male with substance abuse and mental health issues, including suicidal ideation. Primarily over the phone, she met with the man on a weekly basis, using motivational interviewing to build rapport and crisis intervention during his emotional episodes. She also helped to refer him to outside agencies for additional support,” officials said. “Constantino said these interventions and continued contact resulted in him being connected to additional support services, decreased hostility toward the police and decreased frequency in calls to the police department.”

Willimantic Chief Paul Hussey shared his gratitude for the program as part of the release.

“I’m grateful for the support of our partners at Eastern and thankful for the hard work of all my officers and the social work students who assist them in protecting and serving the citizens of this city,” said Hussey.

ECSU alumna Francelis Gonzalez-Perez ‘20, a graduate student from Fordham University, worked with the Norwich police.

“She and an officer were the first on the scene as a distressed man threatened to jump from a bridge. The daytime incident developed into a spectacle as onlookers dared him to jump,” officials said. “Gonzalez-Perez assisted in de-escalation with the client and crowd, and also provided support for the onlooking family while serving as a liaison for Crisis Services. These efforts in concert with the police resulted in a safe removal of the client from the bridge and earned Gonzalez-Perez a unit citation award from the Norwich Police Department.”

Sgt. Nicholas Rankin of the Norwich police praised Gonzalez-Perez for her efforts as part of the release.

“This is really illustrative of the benefits of collaboration,” said Rankin. “To have someone on the scene someone who doesn’t appear to be a threat a trained, competent person who can work with the family and pass (the client) on to a higher level of care. Social workers represent a friendly face to people in crisis, they’re more approachable.”

Connor Pollick, a senior at ECSU, also worked with officers in Willimantic, helping connect a 42-year-old Hispanic woman suffering from “high stress due to her dealings with a difficult 20-year old son and five younger children” to services.

“If the client and I had not met, she’d still be struggling with minimal support,” said Pollick. “I’m now a part of her growing support system. Had the police accountability bill not been in place, this client may have fallen through the cracks.”

ECSU alumna Daniella Cervetta, a graduate student at Sacred Heart University, worked with Milford Police Department, aiding an “unemployed 55-year-old white female from an affluent neighborhood who is coping with a traumatic divorce” and “has made more than 30 calls to the police in the past two years concerning feuds with her daughter.”

Cervetta has strove to help the woman develop parenting and communication strategies, officials said.

“The client blames her daughter for the toxic atmosphere in the house without recognizing her own behavior,” said Cervetta. “She’s normalized police intervention as an appropriate response to dealing with her daughter.”