When the call came in, it was about one of Parole Agent Amy Burrell’s clients. He had become extremely agitated and combative in an encounter with the police. Could Burrell come calm him down and de-escalate the situation?
Upon arriving, Burrell could see that by now her client was “fighting the police and staff.” Burrell greeted the client by name. That’s when he “looked up and saw me” and his “entire body relaxed.” What happened next was more remarkable:
He physically exhaled and stopped fighting. He started talking to me and focusing on me. I was able to get him to tell staff what had gotten him agitated, and the police were able to leave without any arrests or having to medicate him … He told me he knew I’d understand him and help him with the situation that caused him to get upset in the first place.
Responding to Mental Health Crises and Counseling a Wide Variety of People
“Things like this reinforced I was doing the right thing,” Burrell said, in a recent interview. As State Parole Agent for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, she was overseeing a caseload of parolees with moderate to severe mental illness, as part of a new effort to improve treatment outcomes and reduce rates of arrest and recidivism among mentally ill offenders.
“Parolees come out of prison (at least in Pennsylvania) with a mental health rating, Burrell explained. “People combed their caseloads and gave me the cases in the mid-to-severe range.”
This meant Burrell worked with a wide variety of people and mental health issues. Among those she counseled were addicts in recovery, addicts in addiction, sex offenders, and murderers. She also counseled law enforcement officers and military personnel. The experience gave her “a passion for helping those with mental health issues, particularly those in crisis,” she wrote in her essay.
What Made the Incident with This Client Stand Out?
“This wasn’t the first or the last time I de-escalated a situation,” Burrell said. She had been asked to respond to all sorts of emergencies: “people off their mental health medications and in crisis … people on substances like synthetic marijuana having reactions and people just having a bad day.”
What made the incident with this client particularly memorable? Burrell said:
The incident stands out because this parolee was one of my favorites and because even though he was now living in Harrisburg, PA, he had been arrested by my brother-in-law many times when he was younger, and we had had a few conversations about his days in Pequannock.
The Importance of Mental Health After Prison and in Law Enforcement
It didn’t take long for Burrell to grasp the impact of mental health on her clients’ adjustment (or lack thereof) to life after prison. Burrell sought out training and spent off-duty hours reading about mental health and addiction. She talked with trained counselors and experts in the field to learn how to better serve her clients. She invested herself in building relationships with area agencies that offered treatment, housing, and case management programs and services.
Burrell, who is also a retired Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, having served as a search and rescue controller, was a Parole Agent for 18 years. Her contributions helped to persuade the state of Pennsylvania to hire more “mental health agents” with specialized training. Now all law enforcement officers and agents must take a mental health first aid course. Burrell’s district even created a whole mental health unit, so that instead of one overworked parole agent having to respond to every mental health crisis, there was now a whole team of trained agents on alert.
Highlights of Being Parole Officer Who Oversaw Mental Health Caseload
What were the best parts of being the parole officer who oversaw the mental health caseload?
“One of the best parts of the mental health caseload was that I could spend time getting to know my parolees,” Burrell said. “It wasn’t unusual for my entire day or week to be spent with one person. While the person might have been struggling, it also meant I got to know their family or loved ones and get a good picture of their lives.”
Some highlights of that experience included:
- Getting invited to a parolee’s wedding
- Holding brand-new babies
- Sharing in and celebrating the success of getting off parole
In the last case, Burrell would send a congratulatory note, letting the parolee know “how proud of them I was, because it was something big that they had accomplished.” And she also reassured them that “even when they got off parole, I was still there for them if they ever needed support.”
Some parolees took Burrell up on that promise. She recalled one parolee, a recovering heroin addict, who called Burrell in tears. She was “in her old drug neighborhood and wanted to score … She stayed on the phone with me until she could get to her medical appointment and was safe. I met her there and drove her home, so she wouldn’t have to go through the neighborhood alone.”
Wasn’t It Scary— Learning on the Job?
The idea of assigning one officer the mental health caseload was a first when Burrell was interviewing for a job in the Department of Corrections. The new position had been offered to another officer who turned it down. Burrell, though, had a background in social services and a B.S. in Applied Behavioral Sciences.
She also “knew how to fill out an application for welfare benefits correctly,” as she wrote in her application essay. “It was a great fit from the start,” she said.
Still, weren’t there moments when she felt scared? After all, she was learning on the job in a first-ever position with a population that was new to her.
“Maybe I should have been, but I never was,” Burrell said. “I learned that developing a solid rapport and trust with clients was necessary, and I rarely had to get physical with a client. Maybe three times in my career, and two of those times were other people’s parolees and I was helping out. When I had to arrest my parolees, they apologized for letting me down.”
“Murderers Make the Best Parolees”
As for working with murderers and offenders with severe mental illness? Burrell doesn’t blink:
I used to say murderers make the best parolees. They look bad on paper, but when you talk to them, you learn the “why.” One parolee had angels visiting him, telling him to murder prostitutes. He was unmedicated and unaware he was sick. He was always pleasant to deal with. But when you just looked at him on paper, it looked terrible.
Others committed crimes of passion. By learning the whole story and getting to know someone, you get to know more than just that one part of what happened in their life—even sex offenders. When you learn to look past the title and understand the “why,” you learn so much more, and you can help them and help the community simultaneously.
“Unofficial Counselor” vs. More “Traditional” Law Enforcement
Burrell preferred to think of her role as “more like an unofficial counselor” (as opposed to that of more stereotypical “law enforcement”). She always told her clients that she would “bend over backwards to help them make it to their max date—as long as I wasn’t the one putting in all the effort.”
Burrell asked for a 50/50 effort and “usually got it.” All her clients could call her cell phone number 24/7. Even when she was on vacation, she’d pick up.
What’s Next and Future Hopes
Today Burrell is studying counseling and human services at Post University. The mother of three hopes to earn her master’s degree in May 2024. (She’s also working part-time at Carlisle Police Department as a Public Safety Coordinator.)
After graduation, she wants to become a counselor to first responders. She also wants to volunteer her skills in high-stress incidents, such as shootings, mass casualty events, natural disasters, or other critical situations that demand a response from first responders or the military.
Burrell doesn’t like the spotlight—or at least would prefer sharing it with the parolees who “made me a better person, made me want to learn, and created this opportunity for me.”
“When people think of parolees, they think of convicted felons,” she said. “There is more to people than just what’s on paper.”
“I love working with people; I love helping them,” Burrell said. “All people struggle at some point, and some struggle more than others. Some can figure it out on their own or have a strong support system in place. Often, people on parole didn’t have that … Sometimes I was the only one they had or who believed in them.”
When others weren’t there, Burrell was—because “every life is worth saving.” This conviction—this hope for healing—was “her passion.” It will continue to be her guiding star.