Edmonds funds embedded social worker, for now, after contract ends

Compass Health canceled the program in south Snohomish County. The city is funding the police-embedded position for a few more months.

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EDMONDS — In over two years working as a social worker embedded in the Edmonds Police Department, Erin Nathan worked with more than 100 clients in times of crisis.

Police officers refer people in need to Nathan. Then, she builds up a relationship with them and helps to connect them to services they might need like housing, work or health care.

Now, Nathan’s job is at risk as Edmonds tries to scrape together money to support it.

Compass Health, an Everett nonprofit, provided the city with a full-time social worker through a program called Community Transitions.

But in April, Compass Health decided to cancel the social worker program after “financial challenges due to inflationary pressures and systemic deficiencies in funding for community behavioral health.” Nathan lost her job May 31, though she’s now back at work through stopgap funding from the Association of Washington Cities and Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs.

In a statement, Compass Health CEO Tom Sebastian said the nonprofit “reorganized to ensure our organization’s long-term financial sustainability.” That meant shuttering the Community Transitions program in Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and Mukilteo.

As costs for the program increased, grant funding declined, making it difficult to continue operating it, the statement read.

“We’re proud of the impact these programs made, and we’re grateful for the opportunity to incubate and pilot the innovative model for embedding mental health workers with first responders,” Sebastian said.

Moving forward, Mountlake Terrace and Lynnwood will share a social worker, Holly Shelton, through the Snohomish County’s SCOUT program, as first reported by MyEdmondsNews.

Meanwhile, Edmonds was “taken off-guard” by Compass Health’s quick decision, City Council member Susan Paine said Tuesday.

In response, the council on Tuesday unanimously approved about $60,000 to continue funding the social worker position. It’s a temporary solution that will give the city less than six months of funding to keep Nathan on staff.

The Association of Washington Cities provided $51,000, while the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs chipped in $7,000.

By the time the money runs out, the council will have to devise a new solution.

“So in the meantime, the fact that this grant was offered to us could help us at least in the short term so we don’t go without a social worker at all,” Edmonds Police Chief Michelle Bennett said at the council meeting. “That has been a really important program.”

Paine noted having an embedded social worker in the police department is considered a best practice.

Bennett said the social worker brings an alternative response to people suffering with behavioral health issues or drug addiction, rather than incarcerating them or “other types of punitive responses.”

Edmonds has no shelters in city limits, so Nathan plays a role in helping them find temporary or permanent housing.

A tight budget makes finding a long-term solution for Nathan’s position more difficult. Edmonds will likely apply for more grants or spend opioid settlement dollars to continue the program, Bennett said.

Mayor Mike Rosen clarified the city’s general fund dollars aren’t available.

“There are a number of avenues to explore, but these all take time,” Bennett said. “We’re all facing some shortages in general funds.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a photo from an unrelated South County Fire program.

Jenelle Baumbach: 360-352-8623; jenelle.baumbach@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @jenelleclar.

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