As a social worker co-responder, a DU alumna is first on the scene

Kenzie Janson-Wolle (MSW ’15) thrives in chaos and loves taking on a new challenge every day. So it’s only fitting that her office is in the passenger seat of a police patrol car. From there, she responds to emergency calls with a St. Cloud police officer as the Minnesota city’s only social worker co-responder.

“[I’ve] found that I work really well in crisis situations, and that sort of influenced the trajectory of how I ended up working on a crisis response team,” Janson-Wolle says. “It’s been the most amazing career.”

After earning a degree from the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, Janson-Wolle looked for job options that offered high-intensity work experiences. When the Denver Police Department and the Mental Health Center of Denver started a co-responder program, pairing officers with social workers, Janson-Wolle knew she wanted to be a part of it. She spent the next months acquiring the necessary credentials and then landed a coveted spot as a co-responder. Every shift, she was partnered with a police officer, and dispatch would send her team to any mental health calls that came in. Along with the officer, Janson-Wolle evaluated the situation, discussed resources and made the connection for continuing support.

“Having a co-responder really enhances the police officer’s ability to serve the community,” she says, sharing how Denver officers often would consult her on best practices for handling situations complicated by mental health issues. “We act as a supportive tool for them. It makes us better, it makes the officers better, and ultimately, it makes the community response better and their engagement with the community better.”

When she returned to her Minnesota hometown to be closer to family, Janson-Wolle started looking for co-responder jobs in the area. As fate would have it, the Central Minnesota Health Center had been working to launch the first co-responder program in St. Cloud and had even looked to Denver’s program as its model. Janson-Wolle joined the organization in early 2020, and together, just as the coronavirus pandemic was dominating headlines, they launched the first co-responder team for the St. Cloud police.

For much of her time on the job, Jason-Wolle has been partnered with Kelly Holden, an officer with the St. Cloud Police Department since 2005. He credits the social worker with bringing much-needed expertise to the patrol car.

“For many years I have wanted to dig deeper into the stories and backgrounds of the people I come in contact with as a police officer, but the high volume of calls we deal with and limited resources at our disposal made it difficult for that to happen,” Holden says. “With Kenzie by my side, we have been given the ability to take our time and really learn more about what will help the client and what ultimately will stop the revolving door of police calls.”

Janson-Wolle was just a few months into the job when the police killing of George Floyd in nearby Minneapolis sparked a national conversation about law enforcement — and about how mental health responders can play a crucial role in answering some of the calls for help.

“Having this national conversation where we highlight mental health really amplifies the need,” Janson-Wolle says. “I’m so passionate about the co-responder model, and it’s shone a spotlight that social workers do exist and these programs do exist. They might be in your community and you might not even know about it.”

In the short time since St. Cloud implemented its co-responder model, Janson-Wolle has already detected a change in public perceptions.

“The most rewarding part of this work is seeing the community shift in their view of the police and of social workers,” Janson-Wolle says. She has noticed that reactions are moderated when someone sees a police officer with a social worker not in uniform. “They see a kinder and gentler side,” she says.

For Janson-Wolle, it’s especially gratifying to see this program come to life in a community she loves.

“It has been a really cool experience to be the first boots on the ground for this program, especially in my hometown,” she says. “It’s very interesting to see my town from a different point of view and get to know my community a little bit better and understand the challenges people are facing. We’ve had a lot of opportunity to have some great interventions with people and be out there serving our community as best we can.”

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