Specialist helps South Portland police respond to mental health, addiction cases

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Dana Baldwin was a successful FBI special agent in Chicago, specializing in counter-terrorism.

But the work wasn’t fulfilling.

“While that was a really cool job, something was missing for me,” she said. “I need to be in a field where I am completely engaged. Due to office politics and bureaucracy, (FBI special agent) was a cool title, but I was open to something else.”
While at the Bureau, however, she got a taste for  working on cases where she was able to aid victims, such as white-collar crime and child exploitation.

Then she saw the job posting from the South Portland Police Department.

Last September, Baldwin, who has an education in mental health counseling, joined the department to assist with calls centered on substance abuse and mental health. 

Police Chief Edward Googins said the realization  a new approach was needed to deal with the increasing number of calls centered around mental health and substance abuse issues led him to hire only the second behavioral health liaison in the state.

“What really pushed this forward, for me, was, I really didn’t think we as an agency or us as a city were doing enough in these areas,” Googins said. 

While not initially slated to be in the 2017 budget, Googins lobbied the City Council to fund a position for a behavioral health liaison to assist with community outreach. His efforts to promote the benefits of the addition prompted the council to fund the $46,000 position. 

Baldwin connects people with a variety of available resources: referrals for rehabilitation, housing assistance, health insurance information, or just being available to provide a confidential ear.

“We are very fortunate to have her, she is very talented. We’re very lucky,” Googins said. 

In Maine, only the Portland Police Department has a similar position within its ranks.

Googins said South Portland adapted the Portland concept, and temporarily experimented with having an intern conduct mental health follow-up with people in the community.

“We saw a need to combine both mental health and substance abuse into one position, based on the number of calls and the population,” Googins said. 

Googins said a large number of the estimated 30,000 calls officers respond to each year have one or the other issue connected to it, adding they are often co-occurring. “The high number of calls that do is troubling,” he said.  

Baldwin provides a resource for officers who have neither the education nor time to follow up with community members, or to assist them with accessing necessary services.

“We may clear a call and know sometimes there are resources and support in place for people, but many times there aren’t. We have to make sure the dots are connected, and offer support if it’s needed and wanted,” Googins said. 

Baldwin said she feels as though her career has been pushing her toward the liaison position.

“This is the combination of the two worlds I love, and I was trying to make the most of finding the right fit in the (FBI),” she said.

Baldwin said her goal is to be useful, and have purposeful work. She began to research mental health counseling, and eventually went back to school, earning a master’s degree from UMass Boston. Baldwin graduated in May, and is now working on obtaining a counselor’s license. 

She said she has been getting to know the community and area services and collaborators, including the Housing Authority and Opportunity Alliance.

During a typical day, Baldwin said she has a radio at her desk where she listens to incoming calls, and logs into the system to check for calls such as suicide attempts or threats, overdose calls or well-being checks.

She said family members or doctor’s offices may call with concerns about a patient, or she sometimes goes on the call to offer support, or follows up with the responding officer to decide what assistance, if any, is warranted. 

Baldwin said she works with a lot of families, often adding five to six new cases each week, in addition to following up with people from previous calls. 

Baldwin also updates officers on progress made by members of the community they are concerned about. She has a softer approach, since she is not in uniform,, she said, and can be more discreet.

She said people may want and need help, but perhaps don’t like what help looks like – police cruisers and officers in uniform. 

“I want to normalize it, and validate there are a lot of people going through this,” Baldwin said. “Getting help is the focus.”

She said she hopes to organize a forum in the spring at South Portland Community Center, so families can learn about her role, and how to support somebody grappling with mental health or substance abuse issues. 

“If people are afraid of asking for help, and don’t need law enforcement, there are other options to get support,” she said.

Although there are no guarantees, City Manager Scott Morelli this week said he sees no reason Baldwin’s work will not continue to be funded in the coming budget cycle. 

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext.096., or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net.

Dana Baldwin, a former FBI agent, started work last September as a behavioral health liaison with the South Portland Police Department. She provides community outreach centered on mental health and substance-use issues.