It was a series of desperate calls to police for help. A mother was being threatened with violence by her mentally ill adult son.
Police officers intervened each time but the best, long-term solution had little to do with policing.
It is one of the many situations that Constable Douglas Woods puts before the Toronto Police’s Divisional Liaison at the FOCUS Rexdale Situation Table. The weekly meeting brings 20 police, health and housing social workers as well as legal experts and school board representatives, to review cases put before them to assess how they can help.
At the table in this case, it was decided that Reconnect Community Health Centre would take the lead on the case.
Since then, police have stopped receiving calls from the mother.
“Once we intervened and set up services for the family, they were able to regulate his mental health, he got his own place, is living independently and things have been going great for him,” says Woods. “It’s also good for the mother. She thought he had gotten so violent he may have killed her.”
FOCUS (Furthering Our Communities, Uniting Our Service) Rexdale works as a partnership among government and social agencies to find solutions and mitigate risks for vulnerable community members.
It began with the Toronto Police Service, the United Way and City of Toronto and still works out of the Rexdale Community Hub, a former high school building that houses many community services.
They meet every week at their Situation Table, where police officers or social agencies identify situations where outside help may help a victim from being re-victimized or a perpetrator from reoffending.
It is like the iceberg effect. The police or an agency will deal with any iceberg… but underneath that iceberg is the 80 percent of what is causing the issue… issues which police are not best to deal with
Privacy is key to the workings at FOCUS, so any agency that brings in a case only gives basic details like the age, gender and situation the person is in. The table then decides whether they fall under the risk category. Once it is determined, agency representatives decide how best this person can be helped and which agency will take the lead on the case.
Currently there are 18 different agency representatives meeting every week.
While, in the past, the police worked informally with a variety of agencies to help the persons they encounter on the job, this outlet gives a formal and coordinated approach so no one falls through the cracks and they benefit from the best counsel.
“Everybody was working towards helping one family or individual, but we just weren’t coming up with coordinated responses,” explains Staff Sergeant Donovan Locke, who co-chairs the meetings at the Situation Table. “It is like the iceberg effect. The police or an agency will deal with any iceberg… but underneath that iceberg is the 80 percent of what is causing the issue… issues which police are not best to deal with.”
Often there are multiple risk factors involved. And, at FOCUS, the lead agency can tap all the others involved to tackle the problem in a timely way.
“That is where you get that wraparound approach, where you have that conversation that ‘Hey you’re in housing, you are better suited to this.
Addictions? You are better suited to this, you’re in counselling you are better suited to this’… It is immediate help, anywhere from, on average, three-to-five services are coordinated and connected versus going to each agency separately… they are talking to each other on the best way to deal with this issue,” says Locke.
In many cases, police are dealing with issues that can be solved without law enforcement.
Locke says that, from all the agencies at the table, Toronto Police brings in about 90 per cent of the cases, but only 10 per cent require further police involvement,
meaning almost all cases can be resolved with help from mental health, housing, health, education or legal services.
“Toronto Police’s work is not case management. They bring most of the cases in but most of the cases are taken by other agencies so, for the wellness of the community and the safety of the community, I feel like it does have an impact,” says Toronto Public Health Nurse Sheila Singh, who has sat at the Situation Table from day one.
Woods gives the example of a young man whose father was in prison and he had lost his mother to a drug overdose. While the teenager was staying with his grandmother, he had become more and more violent, getting into fights and encountering police every few days. Woods brought it to the table and the boy was offered counselling and other services, instead of being arrested. Police in 23 Division haven’t encountered him since he was referred.
“If there is an element of risk at the time, that they are going to do something, or something is going to happen to them, then we want to slide in and stop it before
it does happen,” explains Woods, on how FOCUS works to prevent crime or someone from harming themselves or others.
City of Toronto Manager of Community Development Scott McKean, who co-chairs FOCUS, said the strength of the table is in the partnerships.
“This table has all the resources pretty much right at your fingertips, so in cases where we have very complex cases, which I have a lot of – I am able to get support instantly from everyone at this table.”
Divisional Policing Support Unit Inspector Dave Saunders said FOCUS is another tool for officers who come across many people with mental illness or addiction issues who could benefit from additional help.
“You are equipped only with so many things as a police officer, and your time is at a premium, so you can’t spend all day or week finding housing for this person,” said Saunders.
FOCUS is a model that can be expanded to the rest of the city and does not require a lot of police resources, says Staff Superintendent Peter Yuen.
Back at the Situation Table, the discussion is moderated in a very disciplined manner. The people at the table weigh in on all risk factors an individual and family may face before going ahead with which agency should lead the case.
the difference about this one is that it is all about action, putting it on the table and putting the people in place who can make those decisions and make those things happen
On one such day, a representative from the Rexdale Community Health Centre says she is concerned about an elderly man who is taking care of a minor who is new to the country. After a lengthy discussion, the group decides that they will take a multi-faceted approach and deal with the two people in two different ways because of their unique needs.
The Table will go through many such discussions. Over the last two-and-a-half years since the inception of FOCUS Rexdale, they have dealt with and resolved more than 350 cases.
The weekly meetings also mean that there is an urgency factor in making sure help is expedited for people.
“There is accountability. After the intervention at the table, they have to report back to the table the following week and we advise the table of those results,” says Locke, on another reason the weekly meetings are important.
“We all hold each other accountable and every week, when we do the followups, that is the essence of it. It is because we are all committed to support vulnerable, at-risk people,” says Robyn Howlett, who represents the Yorktown Child and Family Centre at the table.
“So, the willingness and commitment at the table makes a huge difference, as compared to other tables … the difference about this one is that it is all about action, putting it on the table and putting the people in place who can make those decisions and make those things happen. Then, the following week, we follow up, and we even get emails on a Friday that if there are any updates let us know, see you on Wednesday, it really is responsive to these acutely elevated risk situations.”