Niagara University has received a $150,000 grant from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation to develop customized training and individualized coaching for Niagara County Probation Department personnel that will enhance their ability to address the service needs of their probationers with disabilities and substance use disorder. This training will build the knowledge and understanding of the individuals who directly serve and interact with these populations, improving probationer healthcare and healthcare-related services and potentially reducing their recidivism.

“Everyone needs disability awareness training,” said David V. Whalen, project director of Niagara University’s First Responder Disability Awareness Training. “This grant will enable NU FRDAT to customize its program for NCPD personnel to better prepare them to recognize, identify, approach, interact, and respond to their probationers with disabilities and substance use disorder.”

NU FRDAT, in partnership with the NCPD, will develop and provide training grounded in the NU Recognize-Identify-Approach-Interact-Respond (RIAIR) model for all NCPD personnel in the Niagara Falls, Lockport, and North Tonawanda offices. The training will educate the staff on recognizing disability indicators/characteristics; equip them with the knowledge needed to identify specific disabilities; and provide guidance on appropriate responses, such as utilizing community resources and support services.

The need for specialized training in the area of disabilities and substance use disorder was identified in a grant-funded study completed by Dr. Michael Cassidy, Dr. Craig Rivera, Dr. Timothy Lauger, and Dr. Paul Schupp from Niagara University’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, in partnership with the NCPD to identify the drivers of violations and revocations in Niagara County. Findings from this research suggest that probation officers in Niagara County lack the proper training to identify the specific needs of probationers with undisclosed disabilities or disorders, and that these issues typically go unnoticed until noncompliance with conditions of probation becomes more frequent.

“Our study indicates that many probationers have mental health issues and that these issues can lead to missed appointments, substance use, being removed from treatment or drug/mental health court, and the commission of new crimes,” said Dr. Cassidy. “When substance use and mental health issues are not properly addressed, the likelihood of revocation and incarceration increases significantly.”

Dr. Cassidy and Dr. Rivera will assist in evaluating the effectiveness of the new training in improving NCPD staff’s response to probationers with mental disabilities and substance use disorder. They will also gather data and feedback to identify gaps in probationer disability and substance use needs and treatment services, and to help in refining the program for future trainings, which are anticipated to eventually be offered to probation departments statewide. NU FRDAT will also partner with Jason Rydberg, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Criminology and Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell; Lisa Walker Cox, LMSW; the Niagara County Independent Living Center; Northpointe Council; and Community Service for Every1, ATI (Alternatives to Incarceration) in the evaluation, design, transcription, and field support of the project.

This new program will expand NU FRDAT’s current offerings, which include customized training to law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical services personnel, and 911 telecommunicators, as well as training for emergency management personnel, both on site and in virtual formats. It was created in cooperation with all major first responder associations, councils and state offices, and designed to give first responders the knowledge necessary to best serve and respond to individuals with disabilities. In 2020, NU FRDAT was invited to work with CSE1 and the Family Justice Center to develop and provide training for disability organizations, domestic violence agencies, and legal and law enforcement entities in Western New York to help them better assist people diagnosed with intellectual/developmental disabilities who have experienced domestic violence.

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