City Manager proposes reorganization; City Council to deliberate Monday, October 23 with a vote November 20
Arica Barton doesn’t have a uniform, a badge, or a gun. But she does (for now) have an office at the Evanston Police Department, where, for the past 13 years, she’s worked alongside police officers as a family counselor for children who’ve been in contact with law enforcement. Soon though, Barton and her colleagues--three full-time victim-services advocates--may not have an office either.
That’s because, in the face of the City’s severe budget challenges, Evanston City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz has proposed to reduce and reorganize the social services programs housed at the Evanston Police Department.
If the City Council approves, these services will be placed under the Department of Health and Human Services, and reduced from three full-time and one part-time position to one full-time and three part-time jobs. My initial understanding was that the social services department would be moved to the Civic Center. According to an email from Bobkiewicz today, he is now proposing that the new social services department would still be housed at the EPD. But Chief Eddington today told me he believed the idea is that the social workers would not be house at the EPD.
Regardless of location, the reorganization would dissolve the jobs of EPD’s victim-services advocates--the three social workers who assist victims in cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, death notifications, orders of protection, and victims’ families in cases of homicide or suicide. According to Barton, victim services has functioned under the EPD for the last 40 years and was the second victim-advocacy program located in a police department in the country.
It would also dissolve Barton’s part-time job in Youth Services, which comprises the EPD’s family counseling, community service, and restorative justice programs.
Barton counsels families, runs the diversion program that offers juveniles alternatives to arrests and court referrals, and coordinates the EPD’s restorative justice program, a victim-centered response to crime that allows the victim, the perpetrator, their families, and community representatives to come together to discuss harm caused and to divert young perpetrators from the judiciary system.
Last week, Bobkiewicz announced these proposed changes to Barton and her colleagues, whose positions are set to end December 31. If approved, social workers will receive severance and will have to apply for the new positions. How these programs and services would re-emerge with new and fewer staff, under the auspices of HHS--is hard to predict.
“The budget proposal does not eliminate the social services provided by the Police Department, but reorganizes them into the Human Services Division of the City's Health and Human Services Department,” Bobkiewicz wrote in an email last week.
“This consolidation of services will allow the City to provide a more comprehensive approach in helping residents in need by connecting them with a broader range of services. The Human Services Division already serves many Evanston residents and I hope will broaden their reach by working with residents now primarily served by the Police Department's social services staff.”
Barton, with whom I spoke at Curt’s Cafe last Tuesday, said, “I think the way it’s being understood by a lot of people is that it’s just a shifting of funds and the work will continue. But I’m worried that inevitably it’s going to change. My concern is that it’s smoke and mirrors. And what will happen to all the families in the interim?”
Asked about the proposal, EPD’s Chief Richard Eddington said that the only way to fix the City’s budget crisis is to reduce workforce numbers and services. He quoted a character from the movie "Argo," who, dealing with a hostage situation said, “This is the best of a lot of bad ideas.”
“I understand from the officers’ perspectives who are dealing with youth and with victims every day, that they see this as a loss," Eddington said. "I don’t disagree. But now it’s a matter of having to look at our core mission, which is law enforcement and investigating crimes. We have to decide whether youth and victims can be serviced at a lower cost. It’s a rational decision in a bad situation. Does the system work better when social services and police officers are aligned? Yes. Do we need to find services at a substantially reduced cost? Yes. Will it be as good? No. Is it what we can afford? I hope so.”
An Evanston mother, who asked to remain anonymous, said she appreciates that youth services are housed at the EPD. She and her son were referred twice--once for diversion after he’d been caught with marijuana in his middle-school locker. “It was a very powerful statement to my son,” she said, “to walk into the police department knowing that he was getting counseling instead of going through the juvenile system.”
The other time she and her son participated in a restorative justice peace circle with a boy who had assaulted her son and broken his arm.
“At first I was like, Oh, for God’s sake, it’s not my kind of thing to sing Kumbaya,” she said. “I had the option of pressing charges for assault, but the boy had challenges at home, and I didn’t want to ruin his life. He’d made a bad choice and I was angry, but I thought, let’s give it a try. And it was very valuable. The boys faced each other in a very safe environment, which would never have happened otherwise. My son explained how he felt and the other boy expressed remorse.”
EPD’s Sgt. Dennis Leaks, Office of Professional Standards, agrees. “I’ve sat in on peace circles with Arica Barton,” he says. “I’ve seen the magic and the relationships that are built in those circles.”
Leaks believes that being located within the police department provides a true connection between social workers and police officers.
“We’re unique because most police departments don’t have internal social services,” he said. “It develops strong relationships between the police and social workers when we see each other every day. It builds trust. And it helps to foster better relationships between the police and the community. I’ve gone on death notifications with a victim services advocate, and it makes an enormous difference. Their knowledge, their soothing voice. It really helps. Even if we have those skills, we’re still in uniform, we’re too official,” he said.
Juvenile Investigator Officer Loyce Spells, II, said that for the police department, social services handles the grey areas, while officers are tasked with addressing the basic facts of the case.
"When police respond to a call for service they look for a crime, a victim, an offender, witnesses, and evidence," he explained. "But with young people, it’s not so simple due to complexities of their developmental stage."
"It’s not enough to say, 'this kid shoplifted,’" said Spells. "Yes, a crime occurred, but we need to discover why. It’s the whys that require the intervention and expertise of social services. To be concerned not solely about what the kid did, but why they did it. Social Services can dive into issues of mental health, academics, substance abuse, or family stability. Law enforcement focuses on what was done. Social services focus on why it was done. So it’s a perfect marriage.”
Susan Garcia Trieschmann, founder and executive director of Curt’s Cafe, which trains young men living in at-risk situations in life and restaurant skills and to whom Youth Services refers many students, said she is concerned about moving the family counselors, victim advocates, restorative justice and peace circles from the EPD and reducing their hours.
"Evanston is known and respected for our forethought around youth violence and community safety," she said. "Without this department, Curt’s Cafe would have more students in our program facing even harder situations and finding their way to our program through the judicial system, rather than being referred here before the judicial pipeline is activated."
Barton said that separating social services from the police department is difficult to understand, especially with so much attention being given to policing and community policing. "Removing something that was supportive, that was pro-social, that was going to be an alternative to arresting and handcuffing kids, why move it out of the police department," she said. "It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me."
Here are excerpts from my conversation with Arica Barton at Curt's Cafelast week.
DE: Did this announcement come as a shock?
AB: I wasn’t surprised, because I know about the City’s budget problems and I know that social services, mental health, all those things are the first to go. But I thought Evanston was different, and the way that our City Council and our City Manager speak about youth and families at risk being their number one priority … to have our services cut, that was kind of a shock.
DE: How are you feeling about it?
AB: As an Evanston resident and having done this work at the EPD for the past 13 years, I’m sad to see these services go. One thing the City Council has been calling for is alternatives to arrest.
We provide free family counseling services and that’s considered an alternative to arrest or petitioning the court, as well as our community service program and our restorative justice program, which started at the police department 10 years ago. All those things, we’re looking at going away. We’re getting these dual messages, ‘what you’re doing is great, but it’s just too bad you’re going to have to go.’
When restorative justice first started, no-one had ever heard of it and there was a lot of dissension when it came in. There wasn’t a lot of buy-in. It was a fight to establish it in Evanston, specifically in the police department where it’s somewhat uncommon and special to be located, so it became almost like another child for me.
It's a true loss. It’s personal for me, for sure. And I used to brag a lot about Evanston, about our city. I bragged about how progressive we are to have restorative justice located in a place where we are doing criminal justice as well. To have it be moved feels demoralizing, devaluing.
It makes me feel that the City believes these services are not important, that they can be moved around, they can be reduced. I’m disappointed that nothing was found that makes more sense to cut.
DE: Do you know what the plan is?
AB: I don’t know if the plans have been fully thought through, to be honest. The City Manager and the Chief did say they were planning to, or want to, move some of the services we provide at the police department to Health and Human Services.
But the services I provide and that victim services provides are specifically there to help our police officers and our residents who have contacts with the police, whether it’s as a victim of a crime, or a behavioral issue. I also wonder what would be taken away, because you can’t do all the jobs we do with reduced hours.
DE: In terms of changing location, how would these services be affected?
AB: Just being right there with the police officers in the building, they know they have these supports, they can use them right now. Especially the victim services department. They can say, right now we have a victim, can you come with me?
Sometimes people call the police for non-arrest situations. Like missing persons, or curfew violations. A lot of domestic disturbances that happen within families don’t go all the way to where someone’s being arrested.
Often it’s parent-child relationship issues. These are completely private, but can benefit from counseling. And we reach out and offer free family counseling services. As far as I know, city personnel wouldn’t have access to these reports. So that separation is going to be detrimental to police officers who use the services and to the residents who deserve to receive them.
DE: How have your police colleagues responded?
AB: The chief has been very supportive of social services and knows the importance of restorative justice. Everyone in the police department is pretty upset because they know there’s going to be more pressure on the sworn officers. They’re already pushed to do so many things. They’re going to have to get more training in crisis intervention, they’re going to have to get more training in doing death notifications by themselves, which other police departments do. It’s just that ours was exemplary.
Some of the juvenile officers we work directly with have been saying, ‘Well, what are we going to do with our cases when we want to refer for restorative justice? When we want to give a family an alternative to an arrest? Where are we going to send them?’ They’ve said, ‘Who am I going to take with me when I’m dealing with an abuse situation? When a parent or child are upset, I really need that social worker there to help explain things on a different level to these families.’
Not many police departments have the social services program that we do. We used to brag about how progressive Evanston is because the city viewed this as such an important piece of police work. So now we’re questioning, how important is this really to the city?
DE: And here we are sitting at Curt’s Cafe.
AB: Yes, in fact Susan [Trieschmann, Curt’s founder and executive director] brought restorative justice to the police department. And talk about progressive policing! Susan was concerned about gang activity and how it’s affecting our youth. And along with the chief at the time and the deputy chief and the commanders, we brought in these restorative justice trainers, along with parents of gang members, and we did peace circles. That’s where the restorative justice movement in Evanston began.
DE: So social services has been at the EPD for 40 years, and restorative justice since 2006.
AB: And youth services, on my end, has been around for 25, 26 years, and we’ve provided free family counseling for at-risk families. Short-term, long-term, as long as people wanted to come. And our diversion program provides community service opportunities and worked to reconnect and engage our youth, found them places to volunteer in town as an alternative to arrest.
We work with a lot of people who would not have gone out and gotten therapy. A lot of people who would have ended up on probation or in the court system if it weren’t for our restorative justice program being right there.
DE: It seems odd to cut and move your department when there’s been such focus on improving police-community relations.
AB: There’s been so much attention to changing the focus in the police department. Not just with juveniles, but all across. And I think our social services unit is, was, one avenue that had a lot of contact with the community in a positive way, advocating for families, advocating for victims, and relating the two between the officers.
And I do wonder what’s going to happen if officers are going to be discouraged from making arrests or having official contact with juveniles. I wonder what’s going to happen if there’s not a referral to family counseling or for restorative justice. Maybe fewer kids are going to have contact with the police, but they’re also not going to be connected to the services like they were in the past. And it also seems like it’s leaving the police department hanging out there.
DE: These programs have helped a lot of people.
AB: Last year alone we followed up by phone with 1,129 families regarding non-criminal juvenile incidents and we did 686 in-person family-counseling meetings. So these were in response to, for example, arguments at home, the police were called, but no arrests were made. Missing persons, curfew, substance abuse cases. We had 20 restorative justice cases. So think about how many people we’ve touched in the past 13 years.
The fact that our city had this free counseling program where there was no limit on how many sessions people could have, that there was no spend-down, no insurance necessary, the number of families that were able to get services who would have never gone through the process or found someone in their HMO, you know, having to pay out of pocket, but instead they can just show up.
DE: Are most of the people you work with low-income?
AB: It’s hard to say, and I don’t have the breakdown. Probably, but not necessarily. Even though there’s disproportionality in minority arrests, over the years I’ve seen all different kinds of families, because regardless of income level, all families have problems and dysfunction and issues and need help. You know, it’s a developmental stage for teens. So many of them are going to get arrested and lucky for them, until now, there was an alternative to getting punished. There was an opportunity to learn from your mistake.
It’s important to have alternatives to arrest for juveniles, because arresting a kid and giving them a record is not good for anyone. But if the alternative to arrest is that we’re not going to do anything, we’re just going to let kids make these mistakes till they turn 18 and then, poof, they get arrested, that’s a disservice to our community.
I think sometimes what gets lost in these discussions is that it’s still our responsibility as adults, as parents, as community members, to teach kids to be respectful, to be accountable for their actions, to take responsibility when they make mistakes. There has to be something between doing nothing and telling ourselves, ‘look, we’re not arresting anymore,’ and then we have all these adults who were never taught that when you make a decision it impacts other people.
DE: Why do you think this decision was made?
AB: I think the City Manager truly does not understand what I do, what we do, the history of youth services and restorative justice, and its impact on the city. And maybe that’s my fault for not requesting a sit-down with him to really engage him in the process. But I think it’s also on him.
By calling for alternative-to-arrest programs, by calling for more trauma-related therapies, saying we need more of this but then turning around and then letting go of the people who have been doing it for so many years, there’s a disconnect somewhere. And I don’t know exactly what it is or why it’s happening this way. It’s a regressive move.
But I don’t want to be fatalistic about all this. The reason I want to talk about this is that if people don’t speak up, it will quietly go away. But if people talk about how they’ve been positively affected by our programs, even if they’re moved to Health and Human Services, it will actually happen.
If you want to weigh in with your thoughts and opinions, or you have a story about how Youth and/or Victim Services have helped your family, please: 1. Email or call your alderperson; 2. Share your story ; 3. Attend the City Council meeting on October 23. The Council will vote on November 20.