“I can’t arrest you,” said Erlanger Police Department social worker Rebecca Strouse in her office at the city building on Commonwealth Avenue. “I’m not Child Protective Services; I can’t take your kids. I’m not Adult Protective Services; I can’t take guardianship of you. I have absolutely no power. I am 100% here just to help you.”
Strouse began working with the department in 2018. Before that, she worked in Lexington, where she investigated child abuse and neglect. Later, she moved on to a special unit responsible for investigating child fatalities in the Bluegrass region.
When she was studying to earn her Master’s degree, she completed an internship with the Alexandria Police Department, which was the first police department in Kentucky to hire a full-time social worker, Kelly Pompilio, who is still with the department. Strouse eventually became the state’s second social worker when she joined the Erlanger department.
“There are now 13 police social workers in Kentucky,” Strouse said, “and Kelly and I helped train most of them.”
Polity Number of PSWs Alexandria 1 Berea 1 Campbell County 1 Erlanger 1 Frankfort 1 Georgetown 2 Highland Heights 1 Hodgenville 1 Jefferson Township 3 Willamsburg 1
Police social work as a sub-specialty can be traced back to the 1970s, when social workers in police departments first appeared through grant-funded positions in several suburban communities in Illinois. Embedded, full-time police social workers are now active in 23 states.
Alexandria’s police social work position was instituted under former Police Chief Mike Ward in 2016, and the number of police social work positions in the Northern Kentucky region has increased since then.
Erlanger’s social work position came from a situation with a local family struggling under the burden of city-issued fines related to a damaged roof.
“There was a gentleman that had a hole in his roof,” Strouse said, “and he physically and financially couldn’t afford to fix it.”
Rather than continue heaping fines upon the man, Jessica Fette, who is now Erlanger’s mayor but was serving as a city council member at the time, began researching alternatives. Eventually, she came upon Alexandria’s PSW program.
“They did a ride along with [Kelly Pompilio], and they were like that’s exactly what we need,” Strouse said. “That’s how the position here was made.”
When it comes to police social workers in Kentucky more broadly, Strouse also drew attention to changing attitudes to policing methods that have emerged since 2020, following the George Floyd protests.
“This time is when a lot of the ‘defund the police’ was coming around, so it was a hot topic of police departments needing to be more community-oriented,” Strouse said. “So when, you know, departments would look at this, they would see… this is what we’re doing, and and that’s how a lot of them developed.”
Erlanger’s program handles a variety of cases that would be better served by someone trained in the helping professions rather than criminal law enforcement.
“I work with any population that has any type of social issue. It could be mental health, domestic violence substance abuse, homelessness,” she said, naming a few of the areas PSWs tend to focus on. She also works with the elderly people who need assistance and serves as a liaison with Child Protective Services.
Every day Strouse gets reports from officers who make referrals. From there, she follows up to get people connected to the necessary services.
People from the community can also reach out to her directly. In fact, many of the cases she deals with are what she calls “self-referrals,” which are people coming into her office or calling her looking for services without ever interacting with an officer.
To that end, Strouse tries to make herself accessible.
“I really don’t care how it gets to me,” she said. “There’s not a formal process.”
Sometimes people don’t need the robust, ongoing care of a social service provider; they just need a little help to get by. For that, the department has the E-Angel program, which provides simple, short-term assistance for people who need it.
E-Angel is 100% donation-based, and beneficiaries don’t need to meet any income or family size requirements.
Every February, Strouse reaches out to local businesses to solicit cash, in-kind and service donations, all of which go to help Erlanger residents. She estimated that the program raises anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 a year.
For example, if someone is sick but doesn’t have gas to get to a doctor’s appointment, “we’ll give them gas cards,” Strouse said.
Likewise, if someone needs food quickly, but all of the local pantries are closed, “we’ll have gift cards for fast food,” she said.
She described some of the other things the E-Angel program has provided:
“We’ve helped pay rent assistance, utilities. We pay for hotels for domestic violence victims when we’re trying to get them out of situations,” she said. “I’ve paid for co-pays for medications, for hearing aids.”
The program has also provided structural modifications for the households of elderly people who can’t get around as well as they used to.
Reflecting on her role in the police department over the years, Strouse said, “I think in the past few years, police officers have had to do the role of social workers, and they’re not trained to do that. That’s not what they’re there for.”
Although she sees her program broadly as a success, she has no illusions about the challenge social service providers face, both in Erlanger and the state generally.
In today’s economy, she said, “the resources and the funding is not catching up.”
Without more investment into social service programs, she said, “the resources that are there become non-sufficient.”
If you or someone you know is an Erlanger resident who needs help, or if you would like to donate cash or services to the E-Angel program, give Rebecca Strouse a call at (859)727-7968. You can also email her at [email protected].