Breaking Down Cultural Barriers in the Community

Aseel Ross doesn’t have a badge, and she doesn’t wear a uniform. She’s never been through the police academy, either, but she has a very important role with the El Cajon Police Department.

Ross, a County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency social worker, spends much of her work week side-by-side with El Cajon investigators and officers on cases involving families and children.

“Sometimes I think she has a harder job than we do,” said El Cajon Police Sergeant Anthony Kolombatovic.

For nearly a decade, HHSA and the police department have been working together in this ethnically diverse community through a unique partnership that has a social worker like Ross maintain an office in the police department.

It’s a connection that’s helping both HHSA and the El Cajon police adapt to the changing cultural landscape of the East County community.

There’s been a certain amount of mistrust of government and fear of law enforcement in the refugee community as a result of their experiences in their native countries but the program is helping alleviate those issues.

“I try to help families understand the dynamics of working with law enforcement,” said Ross. “When I go out with law enforcement and we respond to a home, I do see the shift in the way they interact with families and with the kids and it’s all been very positive.

“It’s helped to have us both there and they see us working together. It’s a very healthy dynamic.”

Ross and Kolombatovic both said oftentimes the families think once law enforcement or the social worker shows up, it automatically means someone is going to jail. Ross said in the Middle East, there’s not really such a thing as social workers and someone in a similar role would be perceived as being part of law enforcement.

Aseel2“When I respond to a home the first thing they think is, ‘I’m going to jail,’” said Ross. “We have to break things down and explain to them that there are options and there are resources. I’m trying to help you.”

Kolombatovic said it works kind of like a mom-and-dad dynamic where the person thinks if either the officer or social worker doesn’t tell them something they want to hear that they might be able to get a different response from the other. Instead, families quickly realize the two are working together, and their actions with one agency could affect what happens with the other.

He said he’s seen removals become quite rare as a result of having Ross there.

“I remember being a brand new cop, and it’s heartbreaking when you have to take a toddler or infant away from their family in a car seat in a police car,” Kolombatovic said. “I’m a firm believer that kids don’t belong in car seats in cop cars unless they’re there for a tour or something. That’s not the best way to go about business.”

The program came about as a result of HHSA’s Neighborhood for Kids – a Child Welfare Services approach that is designed to safely keep abused and neglected children in their school and community when it is not possible to keep them with their parents.

“One of the most catastrophic statistics I’ve heard is that every time a child gets removed (from a home) they get pushed back a year or more in school,” said Kolombatovic. “Keeping kids in their community, keeping them in their school and social life with family or even a friend’s family has a huge impact in the long term.”

Before this program launched, if a police officer wanted to contact a social worker for a case involving the potential removal of children from a home, they had to call a hotline and a worker was then assigned to the case.

That social worker had probably not previously been involved in the case and would go into the situation with only the information they were told from the hotline call.

“How are we making sure the information is getting there and vice-versa? The conversations weren’t taking place,” Kolombatovic said.

And if it worked in the opposite direction – a social worker was going to have to remove a child from a family – they would call to notify the police that it was happening but that might have been the first time law enforcement was hearing about the situation.

This program puts both agencies on the same page and fosters a personal relationship.

“We have that significantly important connection because it’s given us a person to contact that we know, and it’s no longer the 1-800 phone call (the hotline) in the middle of the night,” Kolombatovic said.

Ross also takes a proactive approach to helping the refugee community understand how law enforcement and social workers operate.

“People sometimes don’t understand and right away they build that wall without trying to understand what law enforcement is trying to accomplish,” she said. “There needs to be a lot more education and I’ve been inviting law enforcement with me to classes and helping them educate the public on terms they use and procedures to they have that instilled fear anymore.”

Ross works with all ages of the community from elementary students to elders. She is about to begin working with Chaldean, Spanish and Arabic speaking students at Naranca Elementary.

“You see a lot of children that have issues,” she said. “They go outside the home and are exposed to a different culture and then go back to their native culture at home. It can create confusion and an identity crisis.”

Kolombatovic said some of the Chaldean families have been in El Cajon for decades and a lot of resources have been established. But that’s not true for all cultures and Ross’ diverse background has helped in those situations.

“For law enforcement, we’re pretty used to the dominant Middle Eastern culture in East County which is Chaldean. We don’t always have the same opportunity though to get exposed to Muslim, Kurdish or other Middle Eastern cultures,” he said.

“Those are hurdles and obstacles we have to overcome. She’s given us a lot of insight when we have cases and that diverse understanding is very helpful.”

Tom Christensen is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact