Bedford Social Workers Help Residents Comply with Health Codes

The Bedford Department of Health and Human Services, through its two social workers, is putting “human services” into in-person enforcement of state health codes.

“We do a lot of outreach, but we have at least 11 codes that we enforce,” from food service to sanitation to swimming pools,” said Heidi Porter, department director. “What we are looking for is compliance — and when you don’t have compliance you have enforcement.”

That can be uncomfortable, confrontational, litigious. So inspectors, when needed, are now accompanied by one of the department’s social workers, who “connect people with resources and get them on the road to recovery.”

Porter described the process to the Board of Health at its virtual meeting Monday.

The earlier model necessitated referrals to Youth and Family Services “to go visit and engage,” Porter said in an interview. She thought, “When you are in these circumstances, wouldn’t it be really great if you could have the service provider available to respond to the residents, to help them without having to go down the enforcement road?”

Porter pointed out that the arrangement was facilitated when Town Manager Sarah Stanton, early in her tenure, organized the Council on Aging, Youth and Family Services, and the Health Department under the overall administration of Health and Human Services.

“Under this umbrella, it became obvious that this role of social worker could engage with enforcement folks,” Porter said.

Porter said Danika Castle, Council on Aging social worker, or Christopher Bang, a social worker with Youth and Family Services, are called “for folks willing to engage with us.” She called it a “closed-loop of service” and added, “It has served us very well.”

If a court appearance can be averted, she said, “It makes everybody feel better in the end – the resident, the inspector. It’s like you really supported each other in getting to a common goal. Now we have these outward-facing resources available, the opportunity to respond in real-time.”

Porter drew a similarity to current national discussions about supplementing police in certain roles. “We are sort of housing police in a way. It helps folks achieve compliance without having to go to court.”

She used hoarding as an example of a challenging code violation. “We tell them, ‘Work with us. We will get you a support group. Whatever help they need, we can give them a little more time to comply.”

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763


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