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Hillsborough hires diversion worker to bridge between criminal justice, mental health resources

Social worker Savannah Gilliland smiles while seated at her desk at the police station in Hillsborough, N.C. on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. Gilliland serves as Hillsborough’s inaugural social worker, collaborating with the police department as one of four social diversion workers within local law enforcement agencies.

Late last year, Savannah Gilliland became the Town of Hillsborough’s first social diversion worker, collaborating with the police department to bridge the gap between the criminal justice system and mental health resources.

Gilliland, one of the social diversion workers in Orange County law enforcement agencies, is a part of the County's Community Care and Diversion Response team.

Gilliland started her career in child protective services in Alamance County and soon after became a foster care social worker in Granville County.She said she heard about police social workers in other states, but she didn’t think there would be an opportunity in North Carolina for a while. When she saw the Hillsborough position online, she was excited to apply.

In her role as a diversion social worker, Gilliland said she gets referrals from court stakeholders and law enforcement officers for members of the community who are suffering from severe mental illness. She said she works to make sure they have the resources they need.

“It could be getting clients to and from therapy appointments, going to management appointments, getting them to court,” she said. “It may be visiting a client at the jail. It may be driving around the community or even walking through downtown in our communities to find our clients and meet them where they're at.”

The care and diversion response team Gilliland works on is a grant-funded partnership through the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department that works to redirect individuals with serious mental illnesses away from the criminal legal system and toward treatment.

“The goal of the team is to reduce law enforcement interaction, to divert people from the criminal legal system into more appropriate types of care for their needs, and continue to work with them on an ongoing basis,” Caitlin Fenhagen, the criminal justice resource department's director said.

Ashley Machado, the Community Care and Diversion Response team’s mental health diversion coordinator, said Gilliland’s compassion, previous experience in social work and her desire to learn and grow make her a valued member of the team.

“Because of [Gilliland's] ability to engage with others and her bubbliness, she's able to develop these important relationships in the community and that allows for people like law enforcement agencies to reach out to her when there are people in the community that need her services,” Machado said. 

When social workers like Gilliland are directly involved in police departments, it helps law enforcement understand and engage in a different approach, Machado said.

She said if someone is engaging in criminal behaviors in the community due to mental health issues, getting them the help they need reduces the likelihood of them being involved in the criminal justice system.

Fenhagen said, even though not every case has been a success, the social diversion workers had some incredible success stories and the agencies they’ve worked with are thrilled with their work.

“Since we are working with one of our community's most vulnerable populations, just seeing those little small successes — even though they might not seem that big to the larger community — just seeing sometimes that light switch in them, from one small success, just keeps giving us hope,” Gilliland said.

@DTHCityState |

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