News Article Details

Upcoming meeting to highlight mental health issues

The Gainesville Sun - 5/12/2019

May 12-- May 12--Local efforts to address mental illness issues in the criminal justice system will be the focus of discussion at a town hall meeting next week.

The May 16 town hall meeting will feature officials from Stepping Up Alachua County, part of a national initiative to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails.

The meeting is set for 8:30-10 a.m. in the Hall of Heroes at Gainesville Police Department, 545 NW Eighth Ave.

"This is a community that has a very long history of moving people from the criminal justice system to treatment," said Maggie Labarta, president and CEO of Meridian Behavioral Healthcare.

Labarta said Stepping Up Alachua County and the partnerships it has formed with the law enforcement and mental health communities show "just how much we are committed" to this issue.

"The town hall meeting will be a great place for people to learn about just how far we've come and about how far we still have to go," Labarta said.

Government and other agencies and organizations in Alachua County are doing a variety of things to address how the Alachua County Jail and law enforcement officials deal with the mentally ill, said Stuart Wegener, diversion resource coordinator for Alachua County Court Services.

For instance, 70% of the Alachua County Sheriff's Office staff has received 40 hours of crisis intervention and mental health first-aid training. And teams made up of Gainesville Police Department officers and mental health clinicians from Meridian Behavioral Healthcare have been created, Wegener said.

Both are pre-arrest diversion programs that aim to defuse troublesome situations to keep people from going to jail and to guide them to resources.

Also, the development Alachua County's Drug Court in 1994, Mental Health Court in 2002 and Veterans Treatment Court in 2013 are other programs county officials have at their disposal to help people with mental illness get needed help.

In 2005, local officials formed the Mental Illness Work Group to develop a comprehensive plan for addressing the needs of the mentally ill who come in contact with the criminal justice system, and the increasing impact they have on the jail, courts and treatment system.

In 2007, the county applied for and received a three-year, $1.2 million Criminal Justice, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Reinvestment Grant from the Florida Department of Children and Families that was matched with $1.2 million from the county. The grant programs began in 2008 with the creation of the Forensic Diversion Team that provides services that include assessment, case management and treatment.

There were 155 clients involved with services offered by the Forensic Diversion Team at the end of 2018, and data provided by Wegener show that 19.5%, or 30 of 155 clients, received outreach and case management while in jail, 5.5%, or eight of 155, received competency restoration services in jail and 75%, or 117 of 155, received case management services in the community, with 46%, or 72 of 155, receiving treatment services through group and individual sessions.

Data in a recent successful grant application for another three-year, $1.5 million grant from DCF shows the number of inmates experiencing a serious mental health crisis while in jail decreased between 2014 and 2018, from 309 to 205.

Wegener said Alachua and Bradford counties will provide slightly more funds to match the recent grant awarded by DCF.

"Collaboration is necessary, in part, because of the multiple number of agencies which touch a person as they go through the criminal justice system," Wegener said. "Communication is a high priority, essential even. There are scarce public funds and we aim to maximize our use of them and obtain help for the greatest number of people who need it."

That help includes finding people with mental health issues somewhere to stay when they are released from jail and the case management services they need to stay out of jail, Wegener said.

Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell said much is being done to address the issue locally, but a lot more still needs to be done, especially on the housing front.

"One of the main areas we need to do better with is transition assistance, making sure they have someone to live with when they get out of the system," Darnell said. "They need to have someone serve as a mentor to guide them to the resources and services they need to be successful in the community. People with mental illness need mentors they can count on."

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