RANTOUL – When Paul Dollins became Rantoul police chief six years ago, he was concerned about the high number of domestic violence incidents for a community of its size.
Police were receiving an average of 830 domestic calls per year, which comes to one incident for every 15 Rantoul residents.
"And those were just calls reported to us," said Rantoul Deputy Police Chief Hank Gamel. "Domestic violence is one of the most underreported crimes in the country because people don't like to admit they are having domestic problems. It is uncomfortable and embarrassing."
In order to address the problem, the village hired a social worker to serve the needs of domestic violence victims, witnesses and their families.
Rantoul police, the Rantoul Community Development and the Mental Health Center share the costs of a social worker who operates at the Rantoul Police Department.
Gamel said it is rare for police departments south of Interstate 80 to employ social workers.
"As far as I know, Rantoul is the only community south of Interstate 80 that employs a social worker in the police department," Gamel said.
Rantoul social worker Kimberly Harden meets with the victims of domestic violence and their families in the 72 hours following the incident, provides them with counseling and helps link them to social service and mental health agencies that can help them get a new start in life.
"Kimberly's role is to provide support of victims and witnesses of the crimes, especially children, in the process that follows," Gamel said. "She steers them to a support mechanism, whether it be a domestic violence advocate, someone in the mental health center or someone in the medical community."
According to police records, the number of reported domestic incidents increased in the first year after the social worker was hired.
Gamel said he believes more people came forward to report the crimes knowing there was somebody who could help the victims.
"When you start making people realize it is a crime and encourage people to do something about it, then your reporting increases," Gamel said.
Then the number of domestic incidents decreased in the following years.
"We appear to be starting to see a bit of a stairstep down as we became more experienced approaching the problem," Gamel said.
Rantoul's experience could soon provide a model for other downstate communities of its size.
Hiring the social worker was a recommendation of Rantoul's Comprehensive Community Council. The council, which includes representatives from the police, Rantoul schools, the Mental Health Center of Champaign County, the Department of Human Services, the Department of Children and Family Services, Catholic Social services, A Woman's Fund, Prevent Child Abuse Illinois, the Rantoul Ministerial Association, the Rantoul Area Project and the Community Service Center of Northern Champaign County, has been meeting bimonthly since 2002.
University of Illinois faculty will be studying the role of a staff social worker and the Comprehensive Community Council for the next two years with the help of a $20,000 grant from the Cross Campus Initiative for Promoting Family Resiliency.
"We will be taking a look at the council and the police social worker to determine how effective it has been in reducing family violence," said Lissette Piedra of the UI School of Social Work, who is organizing the study with the help of Nicole Allen of the UI Department of Psychology. "This is an opportunity to evaluate what Rantoul is already doing and to look at ways they can improve their services."
Piedra said the study could lead to other small communities hiring social workers to address family violence.
"You might see a social worker in a big city police department, but Rantoul, as a smaller community, is unique in its approach," Piedra said.
Gamel said the study will give Rantoul police the data they need to pursue grants to continue and expand its social worker program.
"We want somebody with credibility to examine whether what we are doing truly works," Gamel said. "We'd like to seek more funding because we believe what we are doing here really works."
Harden said it is satisfying knowing that her work makes a difference in people's lives.
"It's nice when you get through to people and you see a situation become successful," she said.