A national conversation related to how communities approach the challenges of law enforcement, and what solutions could benefit police departments and the public, continues to evolve. On the forefront of these conversations has been the idea to add social workers to police forces as an alternate means of dealing with non-violent issues in the community. Valparaiso University graduate Samantha Burgett ’20, MSW, and the Valparaiso Police Department are leading the way for that change as Samantha was hired as the department’s first police social worker in September 2021.

Samantha double-majored at Valpo, earning bachelor’s degrees in social work and sociology with a criminology concentration while also enrolled in Christ College – The Honors College. Her immense passion for social work and bettering the world around her was invigorated by Valpo’s academic programs and dedication to the community.

“I chose to attend Valpo based upon the emphasis they place on service to others,” Samantha says. “The social work and sociology departments empowered and allowed me the autonomy to make valuable connections so that I could engage in community-based work and kickstart my career while at school. I also enjoyed the sense of community formed in those departments and appreciated the dedication of the professors.”

Samantha was involved in two research projects during her undergraduate courses. Her first, along with former faculty member Matthew Ringenberg, Ph.D., evaluated a strengths-based reentry program for the formerly incarcerated in Lake, LaPorte, and Porter Counties that Samantha herself had designed and implemented. Her second project, along with former sociology faculty member Andrew Raridon, Ph.D., conducted an ethnographic study assessing the experience of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youth.

Going beyond her academic responsibilities and into the community, Samantha worked as a detention officer in the Porter County Juvenile Detention Center, facilitated a reading group in the Westville Correctional Facility, and volunteered as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).

While Samantha knew she wanted to help others, the education, experience, and connections Valparaiso University and the surrounding community offered her helped ignite her passions and truly build toward her career.

“The social work and sociology departments at Valpo first helped me find my passion for working within the criminal justice system via the classes offered, such as the Inside Out Exchange and Juvenile Delinquency,” Samantha says. “Additionally, my internship experiences empowered me and provided me with the resources and autonomy that I needed to be able to begin creating and engaging in initiatives aimed at improving the system.”

After completing her bachelor’s programs, Samantha went on to earn her master’s in social work (MSW) in 2021 from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).

Samantha’s past experiences stuck with her, pushing her to pursue social work in the criminal justice system.

“Social work is my calling,” Samantha says. “However, my work in the juvenile and criminal justice systems and in the capacity of reentry services led to my interest in police social work and desire to meet the needs of people on the forefront so we can work to divert them from the criminal justice system.”

She moved back to Valparaiso to pursue a career with the Porter County Prosecutor’s Office, quickly making the connections needed to fill the historic position of the first police social worker for the Valparaiso Police Department.

The new position is just one of the steps in the department’s overall wellness initiative introduced by Valparaiso Police Chief Jeff Balon in partnership with Caroline Ban, MSW, the program director and assistant professor in the Valparaiso University social work department. The professor-police partnership began in 2017 when Professor Ban reached out to Chief Balon in the hopes that the two could work on future projects together. She hoped that making the connection would lead to opportunities for collaboration between the department and Valpo students, and that the connection could give students unique insight into the decisions made in law enforcement.

“I wanted to have a chance for my students to interface with the municipal police department,” Professor Ban says. “I wanted them to discuss why people do what they do in the agency.”

Students and police worked together to organize a Student Police Academy in the spring of 2018. The project was a success, with more experienced students working to expand the program in 2019. Unfortunately, further plans were unexpectedly derailed in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in student groups shifting their focus to research rather than workshops. During this time, one team of student researchers began to look into the emerging field of police social work and asked whether it would be possible to embed an intern social worker in the Valparaiso Police Department.

Thanks to Professor Ban’s work with the department, the idea became a reality. Social work major Julia Riordan ’22 was instated in the position of intern police social worker in 2021. Later that year, HealthLinc, a community health services organization, provided the funding for the department to hire Samantha in a full-time capacity.

“I think it’s pretty cutting edge to have a social worker embedded in the agency,” Professor Ban says. “There’s a huge number of calls that are just related to social issues, and social workers are equipped to deal with those kinds of calls.”

Samantha works with the police on multiple levels in order to better the response and care Valparaiso is able to offer to its residents.

“On a micro level, I assist police officers in situations related to mental health, substance use, housing instability, domestic violence, etc.,” Samantha says. “On the mezzo level, I help enhance the police department’s wellness initiative by providing training to officers, as well as ensuring that our officers have the resources they need to improve their overall well-being. On the macro level, I collaborate with other local agencies in order to improve our community systems of care so that we can provide citizens with wraparound services to better meet their needs.”

Samantha believes the addition of her position to the police force is a sign of positive change, both in the community and law enforcement as a whole.

“I believe the fields of social work and law enforcement have realized that we can be stronger together when we join forces and collaborate,” Samantha says. “I am thrilled to be part of the nationwide initiative and to help create a model which other departments may adopt in the future.”

“She’s going to do great,” Professor Ban says. “I’m very excited. It’s a great testament to her. She has everything it takes to be the first of something in a new culture. I think it’s a testament to the social work program and the training she got here, and I think it’s a testament to the police chief and the leadership of the police department to take on someone like Sam.”

Samantha encouraged anyone considering a career in social work to make the most out of their college experience.

“Volunteer and gain as much experience as you can in different areas so you can come to know and expand yourself, your knowledge and your interests,” Samantha says. “Get out of your comfort zone, talk to as many people as you can, and equip yourself with the knowledge and resources necessary to be confident in yourself.”