April 8, 2024

Mourning Fox ’89: Embedding in crisis

Alexandra Hagerty ’07(right) and Chief MateEmily Bull wave to the crowd after dockingthe MercyShips vesselin Africa.

Mourning Fox ’89 went from majoring in peace to working closely with the police.

Mourning Fox ’89 doesn’t mind if people get tripped up over his unusual name. Actually, that is part of his strategy. 

He chose it himself a few years after graduating from Earlham College as Todd Hurwitz, so that anyone he introduced himself to would stop in their tracks.

“It’s meant to be a vehicle, a conversation starter,” he said. “Every time I write a check or use a credit card, people ask about it.” 

Like a lot of things in the life of Fox — most people call him that rather than by his first name — there is some logic to it. Todd actually means “fox” in Gaelic and so that was a natural change. As for “mourning,” that is his reflection on the state of a world plagued by issues such as racism, sexism and inequality. 

Chatting about his name provides a platform to engage on those topics. 

“I don’t care what people’s opinions are. I just want them to hear this message,” he said. “One of the things I learned at Earlham was to think globally and act locally. This is about as local as I can get.” 

From peace to police 

Fox credits much of what happened to him over the last three decades to his time at Earlham, even though the path he took after earning a bachelor’s degree in peace and global studies was quite unexpected. For one thing, Fox never envisioned that he — a self- described “tree hugger” — would be working in his current field, which is law enforcement. His employer is the Vermont Department of Public Safety, the state’s main police agency. 

How did that happen to a peace and global studies student? 

Fox says it all makes sense — if you follow his story, which involves a couple of unexpected obstacles, some of them small and others rather large, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, which happened the same year he was completing a degree concentration in Soviet foreign policy. Fox was serious about it, even traveling to the Soviet Union as part of his college program. 

But when the wall. Came tumbling down so did his career opportunities. Fox made the first of several professional pivots, sending resumes to primary and high schools hoping someone would hire him as a paraprofessional teacher.

The Greenwood School, a Putney, Vermont-based residential facility for boys with significant learning disabilities, offered him a job. He accepted and that was followed by another post as a special education teacher in nearby Montpelier. A career began to take shape. 

Following daily lesson plans as a teacher bored him, but he did find satisfaction volunteering to help the schools’ crisis management teams. 

“I found that I really preferred helping students manage crises at different times in their lives,” he said. “I felt like the one thing I was good at was helping people feel like they were being heard.” 

It was a calling he needed to pursue. He enrolled in Goddard College and earned a master’s degree in psychology in 1994. “I was able to focus a lot of my studies on emergency psychiatric interventions, crisis interventions and things of that sort,” he said. 

He began working full-time at the Howard Center in Burlington, which offers mental health and substance abuse counseling to families in need. That is where his connection to policing began in earnest. It was not uncommon that he would interact with law enforcement on cases. “When people are in crisis, that is always a hard day for them,” he said. “But when they are in crisis and law enforcement is involved, it is arguably one the worst days in a person’s life. To be able to help someone in those moments was very gratifying for me.” 

“When people are in crisis, that is always a hard day for them. But when they are in crisis and law enforcement is involved, it is arguably one the worst days in a person’s life. To be able to help someone in those moments was very gratifying for me.” 

Mourning Fox

Becoming a gatekeeper 

Fox spent the next six years finding his place in that equation — trying to help people who were in a bad state but doing everything possible to get them through it in the least complicated way — before they needed hospitalization or before they were hauled off to jail. 

Howard created a new position specifically for Fox, as a liaison between health care and criminal courts. Eventually it grew to where he was working directly out of the Chittenden County Superior Courthouse. 

“If there was a question of an individual’s competency to stand trial, or during their arraignment, I would assess them and make a recommendation to the court,” he said. 

Should they be held for their crimes? Released to a doctor’s care? Sent to a state hospital? 

These were crucial and important decisions, and Fox believed he had developed the skill, through his unique combination of experiences and studies, to make them in the person’s best interest. “It was nice to be able to be the gate- keeper in that sense,” he said. 

But then there was a break in the trajectory. Eleven years after graduating from college, Fox headed back to Richmond, Indiana. He was in a new relationship with Heather Caldera, whom he would later marry, and they wanted a new place to move together. Earlham offered him a job as a student counselor, and he accepted. He spent three years there. “Going from being a student to now being staff was interesting,” he said.

At Earlham, he was instrumental in setting up a new counseling center for students. He might have stayed there except that Caldera’s grandmother, who lived in Massachusetts, became ill and needed hospice care. Because Caldera is a registered nurse, it made sense for the family to move back East. 

In Massachusetts, Fox made something of a career leap, taking on a position at Bridgewater State Hospital, which is run by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. Bridgewater houses individuals charged with crimes but who have been found incompetent to stand trial. 

Fox was director of its maximum security units. It was his first time working officially for the law enforcement side of government.

“Bridgewater was not a very friendly place,” he said. “You see a lot of the dark side of humanity.” 

Assisting recovery 

Still, he still saw himself primarily as an advocate for the people inside the facility. “There could be people there who had charges of unlawful trespass, a very minor charge,” he said, “but I also worked with serial killers and arsonists, and with people who had killed several people.” 

His goal was always to assist their recovery so that they could go to trial. “The way I looked at it is that not only do the victims have a right for the trial to go forward, but the people being accused have a right, as well, to their day in court,” he said.  They could be found guilty. They could be found not guilty, but they have a right to face their accuser, to say, ‘I didn’t do it.’”

At Bridgewater, he availed himself to deeper training in crisis negation, including with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He became an authority on how to de-escalate difficult situations with incarcerated people across the state prison system. 

He eventually left Bridgewater and started his own consulting firm with a business partner, teaching hostage negotiation skills to police departments across the region. Part of his preparation for that was attending the Vermont Police Academy. He went through 16 weeks of full-on training. In some ways, he said, he felt out of place though he embraced it and got firsthand knowledge of the level of crisis training law enforcement officers receive through regular academy courses. 

That was in 2009 when the economy was stumbling and police departments were cutting budgets, so Fox took a new full-time position at High Point Treatment Center in New Bedford, Massachusetts. There he managed a 40-bed detox and psychiatric facility for women. 

Two years in, Fox and Caldera found themselves missing family and friends in Vermont. Fox used his resume to quickly secure a job at the Vermont Department of Mental Health, and they returned to the state where they met. 

That Fox was able to move from state-to-state-to-state and land on his feet did not surprise Matt Saltus ’89, a longtime friend. The two met at Earlham in their first year when they were living on different floors of the same dorm. They used to play a lot of disc golf together on the college lawns. 

“Things always do tend to work out for him,” said Saltus. “But that does not mean he’s not actively thinking about his next step a lot of the time.” 

The two have remained close. In fact, they do improv together. They have a side business taking their act, the Kamikaze Comedy Troupe, to small night clubs and events. Saltus now lives in Vermont, too. 

A force for good 

Fox worked his way up the ladder to deputy commissioner, a position he held for more than four years. There, he oversaw a pilot program that began embedding non-uniformed crisis specialists in the barracks of the Vermont State Police. The program — a partnership between the state’s mental health and public safety departments — was a national leader. 

Over time, Fox jumped across the bureaucratic line. He left the Vermont Department of Mental Health and started working for the Vermont Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state police. It was a natural progression, he said, since so much of his work involved police departments already. And it fit perfectly into his career arc, since he has spent so much of his work life — in one way or another — at the intersection of mental health and law enforcement. 

He is dedicated to making the embed program work. At first, he said, police officers were not too happy about having counselors going along with them on calls. It was just one more person to keep safe when things got dangerous.

But experience showed them otherwise. “Frankly, they are not trained to be mental health professionals,” said Fox. “The crisis specialists actually took a lot of work off their hands.” And it was better for the individuals caught up in whatever scene was going on. The counselors worked to calm things down, assess needs and, whenever possible, keep people from going to jail or being sent to hospitals. The specialists also had the time to do follow up and make sure people got medical and psychiatric help.

Fox likes to hire specialists who have personal experience themselves with life crises. They do not need degrees in mental health counseling, but they do need to share his skill of making others “feel heard,” he said. 

The program has quickly become institutionalized across all 10 of Vermont’s state police barracks, and Fox — who has testified many times already before the state’s legislature — plans to ask for funds to expand it to other police departments in the state.

He will stay in the position, he said, until he accomplishes that mission. He has had a lot of jobs during his career, but he understands how it all came together. It’s a model for others to follow who want to discover their true work purpose and are not afraid to take risks.

He talks about his life unfolding in chapters, how he always availed himself to whatever training he could get and always let his passions lead the decision-making. And he has always planned out his next step, just as his college friend Matt Saltus observed early on in their friendship. 

“Coming out of college, we weren’t career-oriented as much as we just wanted interesting jobs that stimulated us intellectually and were still a force of good in the world,” said Saltus. 

Fox, he believes, succeeded at that goal. ■

Story by Ray Mark Rinaldi.

For Good.
Spark good—
For Good.