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‘Fourth 1st responder’: Police social workers wear many hats in Hampton

When someone calls 911, police cruisers, fire trucks and ambulances speed to the scene, carrying professionals and volunteers who offer assistance in their respective areas of training.

When someone calls 911, police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances hurry to the location, bringing trained professionals and volunteers to offer help in their specific areas of expertise.

While they focus on putting out fires or treating injuries, the people affected by the crisis are often left in shock and silence.

Hampton police Chief Thomas Vulakovich mentioned, “I’ve always said we were missing a fourth first responder, and it was social services. We all collaborate, work together, and play a role in every crisis in this township.”

His department was one of the first in Pennsylvania to have police social workers. They provide emotional support during emergencies, among other services to promote well-being in the community.

“Our main focus is crisis intervention and de-escalation, working alongside the police officers in the department,” said senior police social worker Angela Kenbok, noting that she can no longer describe a typical day.

She, along with social services coordinator Ashley Wilson and intern Maria Sheerin, presented an annual report at the township council’s March 27 meeting.

They discussed their group’s mission, goals, and achievements, which included an increase in referrals and incidents handled, from 189 in 2020 to 543 last year. The growth was due in part to residents seeking support.

“In 2023, we saw a significant increase in self-referrals and walk-ins, almost four times higher than the previous year,” she said.

Apart from emergency response, their team helps guide young people, resolves family conflicts, addresses financial and housing needs, and provides referrals for mental health and substance abuse issues.

“I am amazed by how much you have expanded this program,” commented Carolynn Johnson, council president, to the social services team. “It's unfortunate that there is a need for this, but it's wonderful to see you supporting individuals who previously may not have had this help.”

‘Just me and 1 other social worker’

Four years ago, while working on her master’s in social work, Angela Kenbok was approached by Yvonne Eaton-Stull, who suggested, “I have a friend who’s the chief of police in Hampton, and I have this idea.”

“She arranged the internship for me, and then Chief Vulakovich gave me the opportunity and foundation to develop the position. I still work with her regularly today,” Kenbok said about Eaton-Stull. “She created the curriculum for police social work at Slippery Rock.”

While the concept of this work dates back to the early 20th century, its professional application is relatively new in Pennsylvania.

Kenbok remembered that back in 2020, it was just him and one other social worker from the city of Lancaster who hired Leilany Tran as its first police social worker the previous year. Leilany shared literature and data with him when she implemented the position.

Hampton hired Kenbok after her internship, and Wilson joined the staff part-time in May as another Slippery Rock graduate with a master’s in social work.

Kenbok said the additional hire has been a huge help in maintaining the caseload. They have a strict rule to follow up with referrals within 48 hours, and they've been able to consistently maintain that.

‘The impact that she has made’

Sheerin joined in August, after researching internship opportunities for her master’s from the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work.

She said at the council meeting, “I stumbled across an article on Angela, then I kept finding more and more articles about her. So naturally, I Googled her, and it was pretty evident to me the impact that she has made on this community and subsequently neighboring communities throughout Allegheny County.”

Since starting in Hampton, Kenbok's goals include promoting her profession as a possibility in other departments.

“And it’s finally starting to happen,” she told council, with full-time positions created in O’Hara and Ross townships, and Baldwin, Millvale and Sharpsburg boroughs. Similar processes are in the works with Cranberry and Northern Regional police.

In Hampton, social services extend to presenting educational meetings — topics in 2023 were Megan’s Law and “Stranger Danger” children’s safety awareness — and programs for youngsters, including visits with Scouts and a play camp with police appreciation as the theme.

Wilson organized a “spring cleaning drive.”

She noted that Hampton officers came out on top in a friendly competition with McCandless Police Department, donating cleaning supplies for North Hills Community Outreach.

In December, a holiday toy drive provided gifts for 27 Hampton families, parents and guardians included, with 18 Hampton staff members serving as sponsors.

Throughout all the activity, the police social workers strive to stay informed.

“We do try to focus on not only attending trainings for social work educational purposes, but also law enforcement. And in return, officers come frequently with us to our training,” Kenbok said. “It’s extremely beneficial for us to train together and understand each of our jobs and duties, and be able to work together successfully.”

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