Maine State Police in York County say a program that aims to link social service providers with families who have called police for help with an out-of-control child appears to be fulfilling its promise of cutting down on the number of times police get called for the same youngster.

An Improved Police Response to Juveniles in Crisis was launched in 2010 after police found themselves going to the same addresses repeatedly, responding to 911 calls from exasperated and often frightened parents.

The plan called for police to gather information that may not be relevant for criminal justice purposes but could help mental health workers and family counselors address the causes of the problem.

The form, a simple three-page questionnaire uploaded from a trooper’s cruiser, also had the effect of ensuring that the case got attention from social service providers, said Sgt. Jonathan Shapiro, who led the program.

An analysis of state police calls for juveniles in crisis in the nine York County towns covered by troopers shows the number was down in 2011 from the previous year. The number of calls when troopers had to go back multiple times also dropped.

That’s important because if police keep getting called, law enforcement isn’t the right answer, Shapiro said.

“What are our tools? Our tools are usually some form of negative discipline,” Shapiro said. “You find with this population group, those tools don’t work very well.

“These calls really do take a lot of time because of their repetitive nature, and if you don’t break the cycle you keep going back and you’re arguably making matters worse,” Shapiro said.

Between 65 and 70 percent of the 2 million juveniles arrested annually in the United States have some form of mental illness, according to a report released this month by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Getting mental health workers involved early doesn’t just reduce police calls.

“The long-term benefits of it are huge. If we get services to these kids early enough, we can stop the cycle of these kids being institutionalized in a mental health facility or in prison for the remainder of their juvenile and adult careers,” Shapiro said.

Jennifer Goodwin, program director for crisis services at Counseling Service Inc. of York County, said the project also has yielded some of the first data on families that call for police, she said.

“Initially, the theory was more of the families would have no services and there would be a connection to be made, but most of the families have services,” she said.

What the program has helped to do is educate families so they call crisis workers or a caseworker rather than police, she said.

Police — and crisis workers to an extent — are a short-term resolution to a problem that requires long-term involvement.

“They can’t intervene in a way that will have lasting help,” she said. However, they can be a gateway to connecting families with those long-term services.

The program has been effective at reducing repeat calls but Goodwin said she would like to develop some way of intervening with families even earlier, when children’s behavior problems are easier to treat.

Carol Carothers, executive director of NAMI Maine, a mental health advocacy organization, said any techniques that improve communication between people working to help a family in crisis is valuable.

“Often times when a police officer takes somebody in, including a child, to an emergency room or a hospital, nobody bothers to collect information from the police officer about what’s going on,” Carothers said. “The know the safety issues and sometimes that can make a difference between if somebody gets treated or they don’t.”

The York County form seeks information such as what services the chid is receiving, the child’s diagnosis and medications and when they were last taken, whether the child plays with fire, bullies other youngsters or is physically cruel to animals.

The statistics compiled by Shapiro show progress but don’t really compare the program to the experience beforehand. The form was in place in both 2010 and 2011.

Before the program, there was no data on how many times police were called for out-of-control youth. The calls could be logged as assault or criminal mischief or disorderly conduct or domestic disturbance, Shapiro said.

But anecdotally, troopers and York County sheriff’s deputies, who have overlapping jurisdictions in some areas, responded to between 15 and 20 calls per month for juveniles in crisis, Shapiro said.

The program has improved officers’ handling of children in mental health crises. Skills like techniques for de-escalating out-of-control juveniles were a part of the training — developed by Shapiro — mandated for every officer in the state by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy board of trustees.

Kennebunk Chief Robert F. MacKenzie sits on the board committee that develops the ongoing training requirements.

“Law enforcement recognized there is an issue out there in the state of Maine with regard to dealing with emotionally disturbed persons including juveniles,” MacKenzie said. “We also feel a lot of times, when there are cuts made through the state, those (mental health) services get cut as well, which tends to put folks out there forcing law enforcement to deal with them.”

MacKenzie said his officers have adopted elements of the York County troopers’ approach, although the number of such calls they respond to is too small to gauge whether it has made a noticeable difference.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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