For most of her professional life, Wright County Adult Mental Health Social Worker Jill Nettestad has been torn between two passions – law enforcement and mental health.
She majored in criminal justice in college with a minor in psychology and began her career working in corrections – both at the county and state level. She was following in the family business – her father, grandfather and father-in-law all had law enforcement backgrounds. But, in 2001, she left corrections behind to become a social worker – an occupation she had done ever since.
She found it virtually impossible to juggle both careers because of the vast differences between them. She felt she had to pick one or the other and live with that decision.
That changed in 2018. When Nettestad joined Wright County Health & Human Services in 2017, she expressed that, given her background, she wanted to work with the jail population. In August 2018, Wright County received a grant to start up a Release Assistance Programming (RAP) – a collaborative effort between HHS, the sheriff’s office and court services to assist inmates in lining up their needs upon their release.
Did Nettestad think the chance to pursue both of her professional dreams would find a way to combine?
“No, not at all,” Nettestad said. “I had been in Social Services doing social work since 2001. I started doing children’s mental health case management and then moved into child protection. Then I was doing some foster care licensing. I felt it was best for me to work with adult mental health case management. When we got the CAMHI (CommUnity & Adult Mental Health Initiative) grant, they wanted somebody working over at the jail and I thought, ‘What a perfect mix for me of combining my two passions of law enforcement and Social Services case management.’ I jumped on that and it’s just been a perfect mix for me.”
She had resigned herself to the belief that she had to choose one or the other and, since she had been in social work for almost 20 years, a change likely wasn’t going to happen. As a result, she felt there was something missing in her career until the grant opportunity presented itself.
“I felt like I had to pick between the two because I didn’t think I could do both,” Nettestad said. “Many times with those jobs, it’s one end of the spectrum or the other. Law enforcement is very black and white – either you did it or you didn’t do it. With Social Services, everything is very gray. It was hard for me to switch from one to the other, because I was used to everything being black and white. It was a hard switch. Now I get to combine both.”
The success of the RAP initiative has been impressive. At a time when the recidivism rate for inmates is at about 25 percent in the first two years after release, in the first 18 months of the program in Wright County, Nettestad worked with 181 inmates and only five returned to jail – a recidivism rate of just 2.7 percent.
Given that level of success, the program was embraced by both HHS and the sheriff’s office. The big issue was how the program would be funded moving forward and who would be providing the funding. The sheriff’s office stepped up with additional hours for Nettestad to work in the jail and the program has continued to thrive.
Nettestad works with clients who have been diagnosed as mentally ill and helps them fulfill unmet needs. She has a knack of being able to relate to the inmates and they are comfortable with her because of her natural ability to make a connection.
Able to do both of her passions at the same time has made an impression on many of her co-workers – both in Human Services and the sheriff/jail staff. She has displayed a determination to accomplish whatever it takes to make the program a success and improve the lives of the inmates she works with.
One of her co-workers described her by saying, “Her passion and her drive are a huge part of her, but she also has a very approachable personality. People feel comfortable with her, but she also has the mentality that she’s going to get things done and is determined. She’s very reassuring to folks and she’s very knowledgeable. She’s a total package. If she sees a gap in the system, she figures out how to get that gap filled and who the people are that need to help get it done for the client. She’s very willing to go the extra mile.”
Due to her dual careers, she has blended the no-nonsense requirements of law enforcement with the compassion required of social work. That combination has made her identify with the inmates she works with, many of whom made bad choices, but aren’t bad people.
Her ability to gain the trust and respect of the inmates has set her apart because she truly loves what she does in giving them the tools to improve their lives and get a fresh start.
“One of the things the inmates have told me is that I don’t come across as thinking I’m better than them,” Nettestad said. “What I always tell them is that I’m only one bad decision away from being in orange with them. I could be looking down to change the temperature in my car or the radio station, if I cross the center line and I get into an accident and kill somebody, I could be sitting across the table from someone like myself. I’m no better than they are. I keep that in mind and I respect them. They can feel that.”
Each client Nettestad works with is unique, but many of them have shared experience – from PTSD from childhood abuse, being moved around a lot, parents who introduced them to chemicals at a young age, etc. Being a criminal is normal to many of them. With her own unique background, Nettestad is able to navigate the process of making a connection with the inmates and help prepare them for what she hopes will be a smooth transition back into society and building productive lives – a life reset button that they can take moving forward.
Years ago, Nettestad had reluctantly accepted the fact that she wasn’t going to be able to do both of her work passions. But, as luck would have it, the opportunity came together at a time when she had thought had long-since passed. As a result, she has the best of both worlds and couldn’t ask for a better job than the one she has right now.
“I love it,” Nettestad said. “They are so grateful for everything I do and so thankful. The inmates I work with are amazing people. When they’ve been in for a while and their systems clean out, most of them want to return to a life they haven’t had in years. To see the success stories is very gratifying. There is no guarantee that they will succeed, but, whether they do or don’t, I move on to the next person I can help with the same goals. In this job, the goal is to not see them again when they’re released. That may seem strange to say, but it means they got out, they’re not coming back and they can get a new start on life. That’s where I find the gratification.”