The issue of addressing poverty has a checkered history in Vermont. In his booklet “A Short History of Thetford Vermont,” Charles Latham wrote that in 1793 the town voted to “dispose of the town’s poor as to their maintenance as will be most for the benefit of the town and comfort for said Poor.” It soon became customary for the selectboard to pay residents on a bid basis to care for individuals or families who could not support themselves, a system that lasted into the early twentieth century.
Soon after, in 1797, the Vermont Legislature passed an act that charged towns to care for the needy, but dealt harshly with the itinerant poor by empowering local justices to examine new arrivals in town and order them to “remove to the place of their former settlement” if they were deemed to be indigent. At the time, this process of “warning out” was a standard practice in Vermont and New Hampshire. In spite of this measure, care of the needy was a major expense, more than 50% of the town budget in the years 1810 to 1820.
In 1840 a committee was formed from the trustees of Thetford’s surplus funds and directed to purchase a town poor farm. The farm moved to a new location in 1855 where it was still active in 1880 “on the road that runs between the Brooke House below Tucker Hill to the Hughes house in Sawney Bean” — the present day Poor Farm Road.
In recent times, state statute allows a town to appoint a Town Service Officer. Their role is “assisting individuals within the town who require emergency food, fuel, or shelter. He or she is the municipal official who administers the ‘general assistance’ program after normal business hours of the Vermont Economic Services Division. … The town service officer will provide support within program limits to assist a family or individual until the Vermont Economic Services Division office is next open.”
In addition, “...When an individual contacts the service officer for assistance, the officer must determine if the individual is eligible, and then notify the district social welfare director of his or her findings … if the officer believes that an individual who is applying for or receiving assistance came into the state for the purpose of receiving general assistance, the service officer may find that applicant or recipient ineligible. (33 V.S.A. § 2107.)”
In other words, it falls to the Town Service Officer to do the appropriate fact-checking. In the case of Thetford, the client is then referred to the town’s Trustees of Trusts who make a determination of need. The Town Report for 2022 shows that the Trustees issued 37 assistance checks totaling $66,332.02 last year.
This local welfare system is a stop-gap measure to provide relief in an emergency — for instance if a client cannot pay their rent this month or is about to have their electricity cut off. It is outside the realm of the Service Officer to work out long-term solutions to complex life issues. They help clients take the next steps for themselves by giving them information on how to contact the Vermont Economic Services Division office and local social services.
It is often the case, however, that navigating the complexities of multiple agencies, application forms, and automated phone menus is too much for a person in a situation of distress. This led our current Town Service Officer, Jessica Eaton, to inform the selectboard that there is a disturbing lack of follow-through by clients, who may then surface again in need of more help. There needs to be a different model because these difficulties are beyond the scope of the Service Officer who is a citizen appointee. They would be better handled by a trained social worker who can keep tabs on how clients are faring in getting the assistance they need.
The police department is also called upon periodically to intervene in domestic disputes and to perform welfare checks on residents. In 2022, out of 227 reported police incidents, there were 10 welfare or suicide checks, 8 domestic disputes, 4 juvenile problems, 2 mental health incidents and 1 sexual assault. Together these account for about 10% of police calls.
Certainly our police are trained in de-escalating violence, calming a situation, and reassuring agitated people. But officially their role ends there. While some officers may go the extra mile, they are not obliged to provide follow-up or make referrals to social services which could start to address the underlying problems.
And, in fact, other communities make use of town social workers.
In Brattleboro, the Police Department has a social worker on staff who rides with officers 20 hours a week. Their role is to take the lead when there are issues of mental health, drug abuse, lack of housing, etc. The social worker assesses people on scene, refers them to an appropriate agency, and checks to see if there is follow-through so that people are getting the help they need.
The City of Burlington has a Crisis, Advocacy and Intervention Program, also embedded in the Police Department. CAIP team members address conditions that don’t require police intervention but have a public safety, public health, or quality-of-life nexus. This can include neighbor disputes and issues around “houselessness,” domestic violence, victim’s services, low-level crises, mental-health challenges, and “substance-use disorder.”
In Thetford, the selectboard is gearing up to gather residents’ input on the idea of a town social worker. If there is a favorable reception, the Town Manager will be involved in crafting the job description and will also tackle the delicate question of how it might be worked into the budget for 2024.