While the PAR Program has gone a long way in changing the perception of CMHA residents about the police, engaging them in services still can present a challenge.

Many don’t initially understand what the service is. They’re wary of about letting someone into their private lives. Often, unaddressed mental illness is a factor.

“We all know that in social work, creating an atmosphere of trust, transparency, authenticity and respect are vital to building a relationship with our clients so that they are open to sharing their fears and following our advice,” says Ron Robinson, PAR Program coordinator.

“There is a lot that to be said about human contact and face-to-face meetings. Before the pandemic, a good amount of the wariness and uncertainty would swiftly subside when the new client would meet me at the door, quickly assess me, and let me into their private safety zone.”

But current COVID-19 restrictions have created a need to operate differently, says Robinson.

The number of families being referred for help has not subsided during the pandemic, however, and in fact, Robinson has seen an uptick in the rate of domestic violence and parent/teen conflict resulting from the stress of being confined together. But without the personal interaction, it’s been more difficult to build new relationships.

“For instance, instead of my routine house calls to check on my clients and bring them essentials, I now must rely on the mail system, emails and phone calls,” he explains. “This can be incredibly challenging when many families have no phone, limited or no access to electronic tools and internet capabilities and may not even have a permanent mailing address…not to mention not being tech savvy in using emails, video conferences, and chats.”

A case in point: the police had referred a very distraught man with clear signs of mental illness, but after sending a letter and making multiple calls, Ron was still struggling to make contact. But he persevered and finally managed to speak with the client by phone. A second call followed days later before Ron was able to break through his resistance.

“He told me the reason why he had finally decided to call me back was because my voice sounded like I really wanted to help him,” Ron recalls. “I’ve come to the conclusion that even when we are physically separated by distance, our core concepts and philosophies of who we are, what our goal is, and why we are doing what we are doing shall never waiver. For even from a virtual first-time meeting, people can tell when you are sincere.

“Working in this innovative style of building trust and developing new relationships through virtual services, such as over the phone with first time clients who have experienced traumatic circumstances, has also developed my skills as a social worker, confirming the theory that you continue to learn as long as you live.

“This experience has also honed my listening senses. Convincing a traumatized person to divulge personal and detailed information about themselves over the phone, when the client initially views you as a random stranger, is beyond difficult.

COVID-19 has taught me to never take for granted the power of face-to-face interactions. I’ve learned that when barriers and blockades are put up to restrict your access to the traditional ways of reaching out to your clients, there is always another way, if you are willing to think outside of the box and try something new…even if it does come in a virtual package.

“I was so dependent on relying upon my visual senses to see and assess people. But when that client told me that it was the sound of my voice and the sincerity in my words that convinced him to call me, it truly changed my point of view. This lesson has taught me to go with what you know and lean on the gifts and skills that are already within. It will help you withstand even the crazy and dynamic changes we face. With that said, I still yearn for the day when we can meet again face-to-face!”

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