Other Counties Leaving Fairfax County Behind

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FROM MY FILES FRIDAY

My son and I spoke last week at a meeting of the Loudoun County Crime Commission.  Mike Chapman, the Loudoun County Sheriff, is doing a fabulous job there of getting his officers Crisis Intervention Team training. Along with his wife, Annie, the Chapmans have become strong advocates for improving mental health services in their county, which is adjacent to Fairfax County, where I live.

This was only the second time that my son and I have appeared together, and I was surprised when he mentioned things about his breakdown that I’d not heard before. It was a reminder to me about how important it is to listen to persons with mental illnesses when they are stable so that we can better understand what they experienced when they were in the throes of a breakdown.

The meeting, which you can read about here, was exciting for me because of the Chapmans’ genuine concern and because of the cooperation that I saw between mental health professionals, local National Alliance on Mental Illness members, law enforcement and lawyers who attended the meeting.

Sadly, I’ve not seen any such concern or cooperation in Fairfax, one of the wealthiest and best educated counties in the nation. I’d like to report that conditions had improved since I wrote this blog in July 2011 but I’d be lying and all of us who live in Fairfax are worse off because of it.

A LACK OF LEADERSHIP HURTS FAIRFAX COUNTY 

Originally published July 25th, 2011.

As my recent flight began its descent into Dulles International Airport, I felt a sense of frustration, embarrassment and irritation. The cause is a lack of leadership in my home county by the Fairfax County Bar Association, Commonwealth’s Attorney, and our local judiciary. Those of us with loved ones who have severe mental disorders deserve better.

First, some background.

I was returning from Utah where I had been invited to give the opening keynote at the 1st Annual Intermountain Mental Health Court Conference being held at Utah State University. Before the conference, I’d appeared on the local NPR affiliate in Logan with Judge Kevin F. Allen, a District Court Judge who oversees a mental health court in Utah.  A political conservative, Allen told listeners that he had been wary of mental health courts until he saw first-hand how they can help break the jail-streets-jail cycle that many persons with mental disorders get caught in and  — also how the courts actually save tax dollars.

The premise behind a mental health court is simple. Persons, such as my son, who become psychotic and end-up being arrested, are given a choice. They can go through the regular criminal justice system or they can opt to appear before a judge who has been trained to deal with mental health issues. Rather than focusing on punishment, mental health courts help persons with mental disorders get into community based treatment programs instead of lanquishing untreated in a jail or prison. In many cases, once a defendant successfully ‘graduates’ from the mental health court program, the criminal charges filed against him are dismissed and he is able to go on with his life without the burden of having a criminal record.

Judge Allen told radio listeners that he is  in the process of documenting how much money Utah taxpayers were saving because of mental health courts. I suggested he contact my friend, Gilbert Gonzales, in  Bexar County, Texas, where the progressive city of San Antonio is located.  County officials there became alarmed when they discovered that 75 percent of public funds were being spent on law enforcement, detention and financing criminal justice matters. A study showed 16 percent of the jail population had severe mental disorders and 60 to 70 percent had been jailed for non-violent offenses. Despite this, these inmates remained in jail three times longer than others because there was no place for them to go. The jail had become the county’s mental facility. Each arrest was costing an average of $2,295.

Rather than sit on their duffs and complain, the county created what is being hailed as a model jail diversion program. The first step was Crisis Intervention Training for police and sheriff’s deputies. This course taught them how to defuse incidents when an officer encountered a person who was clearly mentally ill. Next, the county created a crisis drop off center where CIT officers could take an ill person rather than dumping them in jail or in emergency rooms. The next step was creating a mental health court where an ill person could be directed into treatment services.

Bexar County has diverted more  than 1,700 persons with mental disorders, saving the county an estimated to be $3.8 million to $5 million.

It’s figures such as these that convinced Judge Allen in Utah that mental health courts were not only a good way to help persons who were sick but also were effective at saving tax dollars. The courts were  a win-win all around.

I have heard similar testimonials from other communities in Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states I have visited.

While Fairfax County mental health officials have a fabulous jail diversion program, no one has stepped forward from the local bar association, prosecutor’s office or the Fairfax judicial to push for a mental health court. This foot-dragging is wasting tax dollars, causing unnecessary suffering and undercutting jail diversion efforts.  About two years ago, I wrote a letter to Fairfax Chief Judge Dennis J. Smith about the need for a mental health court in Fairfax and asked if he would meet with me to discuss it. He refused. Even after I contact the late LeRoy Roundtree Hassell, Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, and asked him to intervene on my behalf, Smith showed no interest.

The Fairfax County Bar Association has more than 2,000 members, making it one of the largest in the state, yet none of its leaders has stepped forward either, nor has anyone from Commonwealth’s  Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh’s office.

Thankfully, leaders in other Virginia communities have shown initiative and risen to the challenge.

Virginia currently has three mental health courts. They are in Norfolk, Petersburg, and Richmond.  State Senator John S. Edwards has tried for several years to get a bill passed that would allow the creation of more mental health courts, but has been blocked in the House of Delegates.

Victoria Cochran, JD., is in charge of Virginia’s efforts to modernize its criminal justice/behavioral health system by developing CIT, pre-booking intervention, improved access to services, post-booking program, re-entry programs, and the development of mental health courts and veterans courts. Here is one link that describes her work. She also wrote  an article published in the spring in the Institute of Law Psychiatry and Public Policy.

Her article shows that Virginia’s lack of progress is not due to ignorance. Cochran and the folks who run the jail diversion program in Fairfax are experienced and well schooled. They understand the value of a mental health court.  It’s embarrassing that communities such as Logan, Utah, and San Antonio, Texas, are so far ahead of one of the wealthiest and highest education counties in the nation.

And it is tragic that our loved ones are suffering because of it.

 

 

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

  • anonymous,plsthnx

    Hi Pete! You are right that Fairfax county, home to many who work in our nation’s capital, and many who work for the U.S. government, should be on top, as leader, for equitable treatment of the mentally ill, i.e. mental health courts. My experience with a mental health court was not unpleasant; it was fairly positive. The court sessions were held separately,so that others in the courtroom were also receiving mental health care. All the defendants were treated with dignity and respect. The judge spoke conversationally and in a manner that showed care and concern. Regrettably, some time later, and a county over, after being jailed while being very mentally sick receiving minimal treatment, I was ordered to a ‘regular’ court where a non-violent
    misdemeanor stuck. Interestingly, I was not ordered to receive MH treatment as I was at the mental health court. It was only suggested.
    I believe that integrating the MH system w/ the law enforcement/court system is the way to go. How comforting to families if at wits end they call the police, knowing that there is a direct link to getting neccessary mental health care!
    Kudos, also, to all of us who in our sane ‘down time’ speak, chronicle, and report on the nitty-gritty of our psychotic experiences, and open up to
    our thinking processes at the time. This is such valuable information for our loved ones, and the public at large. “The more you know, the less you fear.” And for stigma, real facts from the insight of the recovered mentally ill is invaluable!
    All eyes on Fairfax!

  • Erich Lauffer

    We have a great mental health court here in Seattle, full of heroes saving lives, and improving the quality of lives of many people who are voiceless and powerless and facing a downward spiral unless they receive our compassion. I wonder if there is a political way to mandate the judicial system in your area to do this as it is found not only to help people who need help, but saves money over the alternatives of jail, emergency rooms and homelessness? I know people in our state use the initiative process to put stuff before the voters if the powers that be don’t play ball.

  • http://www.facebook.com/paigereitz89 Paige Reitz

    As a citizen of Loudoun County, I am very glad Mike Chapman is making moves to train CIT officers! It is a shame that Fairfax isn’t doing the same, and I certainly hope they take that leap soon. Perhaps if Loudoun gets a MH Court, Fairfax will take the plunge as well; I’ve noticed the two are often very similar in programs offered for social services issues. I think it is phenomenal that you and your son spoke to Mr. Chapman and are helping him and his officers; he’s been a fantastic sheriff since Simpson left office. I’ll keep my eyes open to see if Fairfax starts to shift as time goes on!

  • Terri Wasilenko

    The city of Auburn, NY in Cayuga County is blessed to have Judge Michael McKeon presiding over both a behavioral health court and a drug court. These courts have helped numerous individuals achieve their personal goals. However, the courts are voluntary and those participating have to agree to all the rules. So unfortunately seriously mentally ill persons are not helped by these courts because they are not ready to participate.

    Pete in reference to Mike sharing specifics about his illness that you had never heard or known before, when my son started giving In Our Own Voice presentations I was often suprised by the personal information he would share with others that I had not heard before. The presentations were cathartic or an epiphany for him. I am happy that he is able to use this venue to help him become more confident in himself. So doing presentations with Mike must be wonderful for you both.
    Terri