City police departments scrambling after Compass Health cancels program that provided social worker

Edmonds Police Chief Michelle Bennett, right, speaks during an Edmonds Civic Roundtable panel discussion May 2. At left is Verdant Health Superintendent Lisa Edwards.

After receiving notice two weeks ago that nonprofit Compass Health was canceling a program that provided social workers to assist police officers, the cities of Edmonds, Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace are working to figure out how to replace what has become an increasingly important tool in addressing police calls involving mental illnesses, homelessness and other human services issues.

Edmonds Police Chief Michelle Bennett shared the news of the program’s cancellation during an Edmonds Civic Roundtable presentation May 2 that focused on policing and behavioral health. Since mid-2022, the City of Edmonds has had a contract with nonprofit Compass Health through its Community Transitions program to provide a social worker — a trained mental health professional who works with city staff and police to jointly conduct community outreach. But Bennett said that the police department learned the week prior that Compass was ending its contract with the city at the end of May, “which is really a bummer,” she said.

The City of Edmonds has been providing its own funding for the Community Transitions program, contracting with Compass through the city’s human services budget.  The situation is different in the cities of Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace, where the two police departments share a social worker funded by a grant from the Verdant Health Commission.

Compass Health CEO Tom Sebastian said in a written statement Friday that Compass Health recently reorganized “to ensure our organization’s long-term financial sustainability, so that we can continue meeting client needs. We’re taking these steps now because of financial challenges due to inflationary pressures and systemic deficiencies in funding for community behavioral health services,” he said. Among the casualties of that decision is the closure of the Compass Community Transitions program, which includes collaborations with the cities of Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and Mukilteo.

“We’re proud of the impact these programs have made, and we’re grateful for the opportunity to incubate and pilot this innovative model for embedding mental health workers with first responders,” Sebastian said. “The reality is that the grants that originally provided critical seed funding have declined while costs have risen, and we cannot sustainably continue operating Community Transitions.”

“All of us at Compass Health understand that these types of changes are not easy, and we share frustrations around taking such measures when demand for mental health care is unprecedentedly high,” Sebastian added. “To preserve, and ideally, expand access to behavioral health care in Washington state, we must pave the way to a brighter future that delivers the sustainable funding needed to support it.”

For Edmonds, in the short term, the police department will will be working with Snohomish County’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program to fill the gap, Bennett said. Coordinated through the county prosecutor’s office, the LEAD program offers options to criminal court for those who commit “a low-level crime — theft, vandalism, things like that,” Bennett said. “If you don’t complete it (the program), then there’s a consequence.” The police department has also applied for a grant that would fund a full-time position to replace the Compass employee, but won’t learn until June 1 whether that grant application is successful, Bennett said.

Lynnwood Police Chief Cole Langdon

Lynnwood Police Chief Cole Langdon called the decision by Compass to end the embedded social worker program “very impactful,” especially with 30 days notice. “It’s really put us in a spot,” he said.

After learning about the cancellation, Langdon sent a letter to the Verdant Health Commission asking for the commission’s help in identifying another community partner to replace the social worker — known as a care coordinator — that had been offered through the Compass Community Transitions program.

Having a social worker available to go on calls with police “is vital to meeting the health and safety needs of our community,” Langdon wrote. When riding with officers in the field, the care coordinator “meets people where they’re at and engages in discussion on how we can help.” Patrol officers will call the care coordinator “when they encounter someone who needs assitance or wants to go to detoz/treatment,” he added. That person also meets with individuals while they are in jail and connects iwth them when they are released, helps with chronic 911 calls from adult family homes and older adults, and works with designated crisis responders, among many other roles.

“I view it as indispensable, and the short-term notice of this cancellation leaves me concerned,” Langdon added.

One of the biggest challenges in finding a replacement, Langdon said in a phone interview Friday, is there is more demand for social workers than there is supply. “They are busy and it’s a tough industry,” he said.

Mountlake Terrace Police Chief Pete Caw

The City of Mountlake Terrace said in a statement Monday that the embedded social worker program “provides much needed resources to help our neighbors navigate crisis. We are working quickly and diligently to find resources to fill this unexpected gap,” and that includes conversations with Lynnwood about a continued partnership, the city said.

“We are committed to providing our community with this essential service,” City Manager Jeff Niten said.

“We appreciate the grant support that helped get this launched,” added Mountlake Terrace Police Chief Pete Caw. “Now we’re looking at what’s next to keep it going.”

— By Teresa Wippel 


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