NORTHAMPTON-Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra has introduced changes to the city’s administrative code that would formally establish the Community Care Department under the umbrella of the Health Department, which would be rebranded with a new name that recognizes its expanded mission.
Sciarra made her proposal on Thursday to the City Council, which must approve such changes, and councilors advanced the matter to a public hearing at their next virtual meeting, scheduled for May 19 at 7 pm
“I’m extremely excited to present to the council tonight the realization of a great deal of hard work and collaboration,” Sciarra said.
Public Health Director Merridith O’Leary’s title would change, along with the name of the department she leads. O’Leary would become commissioner of the city’s Health and Human Services Department.
“Codifying human services in our government structure is personally very meaningful to me,” said Sciarra, the former communications director for the organization Pathlight, “and I think it’s an important recognition that, although human services have generally been funded at the state level, they are felt and needed at the local level. ”
O’Leary said the move would codify a department that promotes fair treatment for all people, citing the health inequities caused by poverty, discrimination and public safety practices.
“We must understand and address the many factors shaping our individual and collective health, and provide all residents with fair access to conditions that promote the best possible health,” O’Leary said.
Section 3.01 of the administrative code currently reads in part: “The Health Department is responsible for protecting and strengthening public health in the City.” If the changes are approved, it will instead read: “The Health and Human Services Department is responsible for protecting, preserving and promoting the health and well-being of the City’s residents, particularly the most vulnerable.”
The proposed code revision alters Section 3.02, which would now read: “The Community Care Department is responsible for providing services for community needs, including trained, civilian emergency response to mental health, substance use, and other crisis calls.”
Former Mayor David Narkewicz hired Sean Donovan as the new department’s implementation director in November. Donovan told the City Council that he has contacted similar programs across North America and did not find any others that are situated under a public health department.
“I think we have a really unique opportunity here” to set up a Community Care Department that is directly supported by public health experts, Donovan said, adding that unarmed community response teams are expected to start work next spring.
In its March 2021 report “Reimagining Safety,” the Northampton Policing Review Commission recommended the creation of the Community Care Department and advocated that it be “situated underneath the Board of Health” in recognition of racism as a public health crisis.
Throughout the public discussion on Thursday night, officials referred to the “Department of Community Care,” but Sciarra’s written proposal refers to the “Community Care Department” and that is the phrase that would be used in the administrative code.
In a letter to the council, Sciarra noted that the policing commission wanted to provide the new department with “access to highly trained professionals who have experience with some of Northampton’s most vulnerable residents while simultaneously serving the majority of the population as well,” and placing it under O’Leary’s purview would achieve that goal.
Sciarra wrote that O’Leary and former Mayor David Narkewicz expanded the Health Department’s role over the course of several years, created regional public health programs and built a “multi-skilled dynamic staff” that takes “a more holistic response to the needs of local residents ”and entities.
“Prior to 2015, the Health Department had five staff, equivalent to three full-time employees, who principally provided communicable disease monitoring and surveillance as well as inspectional services,” Sciarra wrote. “For the last decade, the Northampton Health Department has systematically responded to increased demand for a more comprehensive definition and approach to public health.”
Sciarra cited the Health Department’s creation of a Health Information Exchange database that compiles regional and state data such as emergency room visits related to drug overdose, the Drug Addiction and Recovery Team program that now exists in 45 communities and the department’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which included setting up regional vaccination and testing sites.
Brian Steele can be reached at [email protected].