Imagine being a victim of domestic abuse, sex trafficking, or another terrible crime, and having the bravery to finally call 911. Of course, you would expect the police to respond to diffuse the situation, but the trauma of being victimized goes much, much deeper. It doesn’t stop when the police leave. In many ways, it only marks the start of a long, difficult journey through the justice system that many end up having to face alone.
Now, imagine those police officers showed up to keep you safe, but this time they brought along a social worker-- a person dedicated to helping you cope with the mental trauma you’ve just experienced. A person well trained in how the system works and a person there to help you navigate the new reality you’ll be faced with. The social worker takes the time to link you with basic community resources, help you cope with the trauma you’ve just experienced, navigate court dates, police reports, court filings—this person is even there to help you find a new safe place to stay and provide food for you and your family if necessary.
That social worker/police partnership is real—and they’ve already been hard at work together for years right here in Rhode Island. They’re a part of FSRI’s GO Team, established in 2004, partnering Police Officers and social workers in Providence, East Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Rhode Island State Police. Funded heavily by the federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), it’s modeled after the Yale Child Study Center’s police-clinician response to children exposed to violence to address stress, anxiety, depression, and other symptoms of trauma through police and clinician intervention.
They work as a team to respond to emergency calls and offer immediate trauma-informed assistance in troubling situations to promote both physical and mental health. It allows allowing officers to do what they’re trained to do in public safety, and social workers to respond to the unseen threats crime victims often face.
The Go Team idea came about in 2003 with the help of former Providence Police Chief Dean Esserman and FSRI’s CEO Margaret Holland-McDuff. The two began collaborating after Holland McDuff sent Esserman a letter about working together to address the needs of children exposed to violence and trauma. Esserman had previously founded the New Haven Police/Yale Child Study Center Child Development Community Policing Program in 1992, which was later designated as the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence by the White house. He happily agreed, and after many discussions on incorporating this program, the Providence Police Department and FSRI put their initiative to the test in 2004.
“Sometimes you need handcuffs, sometimes you need hugs,” Colonel Esserman said.
Esserman also commented that instead of focusing on defunding the police, we should be reimagining the police. He strongly believes that the work the Go Team does is the direction that policing should move in. He is now the Senior Counselor at the National Police Foundation.
Go Team workers put their hearts into their jobs, and their kindness repeatedly shows itself through their actions. From an officer collecting money to buy a bike for the handicapped child whose bike was stolen, to responders going to court with a victim to offer support and courage and providing emotional, stable support with at hand resources to on the scene individuals. FSRI’s Go Team goes above and beyond to uplift and care for its families.
The program’s success has not gone unnoticed. Other police departments have asked for the Go Team model, and clients’ follow-up surveys have produced extremely positive remarks over the years.
With recent VOCA funding cuts, however, the money used to fund Go Team is being reduced. While this increases the initiative’s gap funding, FSRI and the Providence Police are adamant about continuing their partnership.
“They [Go Team] would not stop. It’s here forever It’s part of how we police Providence now. It’s in our DNA,” Esserman said.
The Go Team program receives calls over dispatch or are referred to situations by a detective or lieutenant. Victims in these circumstances may need an assortment of care including comfort, de-escalation, and help to understand the justice system. Therefore, police officers and clinicians work side by side to address the emotional, mental, and physical needs of those they’ve been sent to support. Addressing symptoms of trauma early on and gathering additional resources for victims can help with quicker recovery times and reduced long-term effects.
“The public gets services delivered to their door when they need it—not later,” said Esserman.
Launching the Go Team in Providence took a lot of work and started with clinicians and police officers taking a four-day training course at Yale Medical School. Esserman insisted attendees drive together so they would get to know each other. Many of these individuals recall the car ride being the most memorable part of the experience.
“They went as strangers and came back bonded as friends,” Esserman said.
Esserman described how cops, like clinicians, are careful and cautious about friendships. Once they find a common bond, however, that bond is difficult to break.
Through conferences and conversations, the structure of Go Team emerged. Early in its formation, one officer activated the Go Team after a school bus and motorcycle got into an accident. The 11 children on the bus were traumatized by the situation and immediately taken to the hospital along with the bus driver. Here, clinicians and police officers assisted the kids with processing the events.
“Parents rushed to the hospital and saw police and clinicians working together... I went but I wasn’t the one to call. That’s when I knew it was going to work,” Esserman said.
Since then, the program has grown beyond Esserman’s hopes and dreams by becoming stronger and more structured. It has also created better relations with community members over the past 17 years. Allowing clinicians to be on call with officers has helped immensely. Before this program, law enforcement would have to deal with every aspect of the situation by themselves. Between the technical, scientific, legal, and emotional parts, there were way too many tasks for one person to balance. Letting clinicians on the scene removed part of that burden law enforcement faced. On their own, law enforcement would also have to connect victims with their next resource whom these officers may or may not have known. It was difficult seeing people in need and not knowing if the individual officers put them in contact with the correct resource to be effective. So, having trusted clinicians on the scene to direct victims to additional resources has made the problem of uncertainty go away.
There are times, however, when people don’t call for help because they don’t trust the police. With this in mind, it is especially important to rethink policing.
“Today the police are the agency of last resort in America,” Esserman said.
The Go Team partnership over the past decade and a half has helped police officers do more compassionate policing while broadening their views on victimization. Nowadays, the trust and legitimacy of the police has to be earned. Through Go Team’s positive interactions and relationships with individuals in crisis, people are beginning to trust again and come back when they have additional predicaments.
Go Team is continuously strengthening the quality of assistance trauma victims receive, and time and time again proven its success. Moving forward, the program is looking to make sure more community members aware of their services and spread the knowledge about their program across the country. Providence is a model of success that people can learn from so Go Team can be implemented in different police departments throughout the country.
Would you like to learn more about FSRI’s Go Team and the services they provide? Visit familyserviceri.org for more information.