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A success story in Whatcom County's Mental Health Court

Bellingham Herald - 3/27/2017

March 27--BELLINGHAM -- Two years ago Rebecca Rossmeisl's life did not look like a success story.

Home was a motel room on Samish Way. She'd dropped out of high school after a teen pregnancy. She was 29 when state social workers took her third child away. She used meth and marijuana to self-medicate stress and severe depression.

Rossmeisl had never been in real trouble with the law, though, until a fight with her mother on April 7, 2015. She threw a kitchen knife that hit her mom in the back, handle-first, at a house on Roma Road -- or so police told her later on. She says she doesn't remember what happened, because of her mental state.

For the first time in her life, Rossmeisl spent time in jail. Prosecutors charged her with felony assault and violation of a no-contact order. She could have come out of it even worse off, she says, if not for Whatcom County's fledgling Mental Health Court program.

This month, Rossmeisl became the court's first graduate.

She credits the program with helping to rebuild her life. She's starting school again to get her high school diploma. She has an apartment. And if all goes according to plan, Child Protective Services will close her case in a few weeks.

"I don't think I'd have my daughter back today if I hadn't been in this program, because I'd be in prison," Rossmeisl said, as she waited in a courtroom hallway, with her daughter Chloe, 2, fidgeting on her lap.

The court

Over the past two decades, mental health courts have emerged as a way to divert defendants from jail, when their crimes have a clear link to mental illness. Like the drug courts they're modeled after, the focus is on recovery, treatment, housing and addressing the bad behavior at its root.

Funded by a local sales tax, Whatcom County's Mental Health Court began in January 2015, against the backdrop of a jail overcrowding crisis. (Bellingham Municipal Court started a similar program two years ago, too, for misdemeanors).

Since then, the county's program has grown to about a dozen clients, with a capacity for 20. Many of those -- with Rossmeisl being an exception -- have been booked into jail many times for minor crimes. The court aims to find out why someone ends up behind bars in the first place, said Michael Sullivan, a case manager with the nonprofit Lake Whatcom Residential and Treatment Center.

"It's because there's some hole somewhere else, whether that hole was they didn't have anywhere to live, or any food to eat, or the right medications, or (they were) using drugs, or whatever it was," Sullivan said. "That's what led to the criminal infraction in these cases. It's not that the person was malicious, and wanted to do harm to other people."

In the county's court, case managers check in with clients about twice a week.

On Wednesdays the defendants -- known as "members" in the program -- show up for a hearing in front of a District Court judge, to talk about how they're doing.

Not so good? They could go back to jail.

Good? They get small incremental rewards: words of encouragement, free bus passes, and so on. And eventually, the felony charges are dropped.

The clients

The county's program takes two years to complete, give or take a few months, depending on how a member performs.

One of the first members, a 49-year-old Lynden man, was shepherded through treatment for months, but never finished. A judge issued warrants for the man's arrest, and his felony case returned to Superior Court.

Two other candidates turned out to be a "bad fit" in Mental Health Court, and didn't even get as far as treatment, said Darrin Hall, a public defender who handles all of the court's cases. Some of the more successful members, like Thomas Sullivan, served months in jail before mental health court became a gateway out.

Thomas Sullivan's parents recognized his need for special mental care when he was 3 years old, he said. On an afternoon in May 2015, he was arrested on three felony charges, for threatening to kill his mother and burn down her house, court records say. Police called in a SWAT team and a hostage negotiator.

"I had an episode and ran my mouth," Sullivan said.

That day he exited the home peacefully. In jail he asked to be in 24-hour lock-down, he said, because of his severe anxiety. More than 100 days after he was charged, as he awaited trial, an attorney suggested he'd be a good fit for the mental health program. He wishes he'd heard of it sooner.

Thomas Sullivan was released from jail in November 2015. His charges were reduced and deferred. Now, many of the stresses that led up to Sullivan's episode two years ago have been alleviated, he said. He now has a steady income and his own apartment. Greater stability, he said, has been the biggest help for him. He's next in line to graduate, in about three months.

Structure

Whatcom County's annual budget devotes $250,000 to the Mental Health Court, or about 1.3 percent of the Health Department's budget for programs.

Experts tend to agree that mental health courts slash the odds of re-arrest for a group that's at high risk to re-offend. That cuts down the high cost of jailing people. However, studies conflict on how much money, if any, mental health courts save in the long run. Local advocates claim for each dollar invested, the community gets back $6.75 in benefits.

Some things about the court, however, can't be quantified.

"We've kept these folks out of jail; they have kept themselves out of jail," said District Court Judge Matthew Elich, who presides over the court. "They're learning ways to appropriately adapt to external stresses, and to deal with their special issues."

The program serves a moral purpose, too, said Michael Sullivan.

"People like this," he said, glancing over to Rossmeisl, "aren't supposed to be behind bars. We need to put criminals behind bars. Society needs to pay for criminals and dangerous people to be behind bars, so that the rest of us can be safe. I'm not scared of her. Nobody is. She's not going to hurt anybody."

To Rossmeisl, the future looks bright. In court, Elich reminded her: "We're very, very proud of you."

Later, at a graduation party upstairs, she'd be hearing that again and again.

She joked: "I cannot hear it enough."

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb

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(c)2017 The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.)

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