By Jacki Wood

Approximately 2 million people with a mental illness are booked into jails across the country every year, many because they did not get the treatment they needed. Just 4 in 10 people with a mental health condition in Missouri received any treatment in the past year. And over 1.9 million people in the state live in a mental health professional shortage area.

To help address the gaps in available local mental health resources, the Fourth Judicial Circuit Leadership Team on Mental Health and Criminal Justice was assembled in late 2020 with Associate Judge Robert Rice as chair and members comprised from health, law enforcement and judicial organizations. The team created a two-phase approach to address these concerns across the Fourth Circuit which includes Nodaway, Atchison, Gentry, Holt and Worth counties.

Gaps identified

The gaps identified by the leadership team included:

1. Crisis intervention counseling services: only one counselor has been available to law enforcement during the day, covering a nine-county region, and with no night coverage for law enforcement to utilize. That means officers are serving as first responders to persons in crisis without the tools and training needed.

2. Crisis Intervention Training: CIT training aids officers’ ability to properly identify a possible mental health crisis early and intervene with the appropriate resources. With proper training and access to a 24/7 counselor, officers could divert a person in crisis to services instead of criminal arrest and detainment.

3. Waiting list for alternative programs: due to a shortage of funds for Drug Court and DWI Court, there’s been a waiting list for persons who qualified for the programs. Both have demonstrated success and reduced recidivism.

4. Transportation: many times clients most in need of mental health services do not have money for fuel or transportation to get to services as most are located in St. Joseph or Kansas City.

5. Urgent lack of local resources: there has been an alarming need for mental health resources and services to address crisis in local communities as well as how mental health crisis affects local first responders.

Phase 1

After identifying the gaps, the leadership team got to work on addressing the issues by developing a two-stage plan.

The organization received a $50,000 Justice Reinvestment Initiative grant in January 2021 which was primarily used on the first phase.

Sixty percent of the grant, or $30,000, was used for supplemental access to crisis intervention services and a mental health counselor for the Fourth Circuit for six months. These funds established a 24/7 crisis hotline and mental health counselor to assist law enforcement officers.

Twenty-four percent of the grant, or $12,000, was used to supplement the Alternative Court programs for treatment costs which help eliminate the waiting list.

Eight percent of the grant, or $4,000, was used for fuel voucher and transportation assistance for clients who live outside the county where services are located.

Eight percent of the grant, or $4,000, was used on attorney fees to create legal documents for implementing the second phase, which is to create a self-sustaining, comprehensive, community-based mental health program.

Phase 2

Results from Phase 1 were presented to the area county commissioners on October 20 as well as a proposal for Phase 2.

If the five counties are all on board, this part of the project would include the creation of a board of trustees constructed of 11 members with each county having representation based on population. The board would then decide how to garner funds and how they would be spent including continuing the progress made during Phase 1.

So far, the commissioners from Nodaway, Gentry, Holt and Worth counties have agreed to move forward.

The vision of the cooperative supplements current resources with additional innovative, community-based approaches to improve the outcomes of initial encounters with law enforcement. When the criminal justice system has to respond, the program would provide continuing and sustainable funding for alternative treatment programs instead of incarceration.

The program hopes that through access to crisis intervention services and education, it can help provide people who suffer from mental illness appropriate treatment and assist them on the road to recovery.

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