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Local mental health court growing

New program providing support, therapy for clients

Local mental health court growing

Local mental health court growing


After four months in operation, the local mental health court, officially the Bulloch County Accountability/Treatment Court, has seven clients. The first three have avoided further arrests and are now doing volunteer work in the community.
For example, a man in his 20s had 11 prior arrests before entering the program in September. He now attends daily treatment, as well as weekly group therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. His was one of the three success stories reported in the court’s Jan. 6 newsletter. All three of the original participants are moving into Phase 2 of the five-phase program.
The court has started slowly but is making important progress, Superior Court Judge William E. Woodrum Jr. reported to the Bulloch County commissioners Jan. 21.
“We have very few individuals at this point, but we’re making a lot of progress with them, and it’s very rewarding to see the individuals as they progress through the issues that they may have,” Woodrum said.
He hears their cases as judge of the new court. Although Woodrum is chief judge of the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit, the Accountability/Treatment Court is limited to Bulloch County.
This new court is one of three special accountability courts now operating in Bulloch. The others are the DUI court and the drug court.

It’s voluntary
Going the accountability court route is voluntary. But the alternative for many defendants would be prison or a detention facility. In jail, they would receive prescribed medication, but probably not the other kinds of treatment they need, said Karen McClain, the Bulloch County Accountability and Treatment Court coordinator.
“Treatment is the whole gamut of not just medication but also the other services that we’re providing to help them with coping skills and anger management-type issues,” McClain said.
The goals of the court, she said, are to keep participants out of jail and in treatment that leads them away from committing more crimes and toward stable and productive lives.
A team of professionals from the district attorney’s office, the public defenders’ office, the state court solicitor, state and county probation programs, the sheriff’s department and Pineland Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities reviews cases to determine who may participate.
Pineland Behavioral Health both does the mental health evaluations and provides the treatment services. Pineland Executive Director June Dipolito said her agency had long wanted such a court and is excited it has become a reality.
“The judge is very good about ensuring that they get treatment,” Dipolito said. “He’s also encouraging them to further their education, work on a GED, a job, and if they are not working, then let’s get you volunteering. It’s not just the mental health treatment. So I’m excited about that part, that they’re embracing looking at all of the needs of the individual.”
Accountability and Treatment Court is not a court that sentences someone and is done. Participants are expected to return to the court every time it meets, twice a month.
“That is to help hold them accountable,” McClain said. “That is where the judge talks to them on an individual basis in the courtroom setting, to ask them how they’re doing.”
The program phases move participants from mere compliance with treatment, substance abuse testing and the 7 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew toward work and self-management. Participants write essays as part of the evaluation to move up a phase.


Not for everybody
The program is for adults who have an Axis I mental health diagnosis and criminal charges pending in Bulloch County, or who are facing probation revocation.
Axis I diagnoses include depression and other mood disorders, schizophrenia, and anxiety disorders, of which post-traumatic stress disorder is an example.
The court is open to defendants facing felony or misdemeanor charges, but there are exceptions. People with current charges or past convictions for murder, armed robbery, rape, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery, child molestation or aggravated child molestation are barred from the accountability court. So are undocumented aliens.
Participants must be willing to take part for a minimum of 12 or 24 months, depending on their charges.
They must remain drug- and alcohol-free while in the program.
“They are tested very often,” McClain said. “It could be as much as three times a week.”
The drug and alcohol testing, Dipolito said, is required because people with mental illnesses who get in trouble with the law often have substance abuse problems too.
It also helps ensure they aren’t doing things that interfere with prescribed medication and treatment, McClain said.
Participants must attend whatever treatment the team prescribes.
This can range from daily counseling plus weekly group sessions to weekly individual counseling, substance abuse treatment and AA meetings. In addition to individually prescribed sessions, court participants attend a special weekly group session just for them.
“It takes a big commitment on their part,” McClain said.
But Bill Coussons, the president of the Statesboro chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said even the constant drug testing serves a purpose.
“I think it establishes the fact that you mean business and you’re not playing, you know,” Coussons said. “You want people to be up-front and tell you what’s going on.”
NAMI, whose membership includes many family members of people with mental illnesses, advocated the creation of mental health courts in Georgia. By reducing jail occupancy and repeated hospital visits, the program should conserve taxpayer and community resources for people who need them most, Coussons said.
With the mental health courts and Crisis Intervention Team training for law enforcement personnel, he said, Georgia has made strides in improving the way it deals with people with mental illnesses.
“This, in conjunction with CIT training prevents a lot of jail time that eats up a lot of tax dollars,” Coussons said. “We’ve all become more aware of what we’re dealing with, and treatment is a lot less expensive than jail.”


Growing in Georgia
Some accountability courts, such as Bulloch’s drug court, were established locally prior to state funding, but Gov. Nathan Deal has backed creating more of these courts. He signed legislation in 2011, when there were just 12 mental health courts statewide, to encourage communities to establish them with grants through the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
The council reported in November that 18 mental health courts statewide received funding for fiscal years 2013 and 2014. These comprised 11 operational courts and seven, such as Bulloch’s, still in the implementation phase. The council’s report is available at http://cjcc.georgia.gov.
Bulloch County was initially approved for a $146,000 grant in the fiscal year ending June 2013 to set up the court, according to local officials. But only a portion of this was used, as McClain was not hired as the court’s coordinator until May.
Neither a mental health professional nor a lawyer, McClain had worked as a paralegal and administration assistant in local law firms for more than 20 years
The grant for the fiscal year ending this June is for about $119,000. The funding is on a reimbursement basis, with the county receiving only what it spends. Some of the money is potentially available to assist participants with emergency housing and medication.
For the next fiscal year, the court will request state funding for a caseworker who will handle the court’s cases at Pineland, McClain said. Meanwhile, she hopes to be handling the case reviews and records as the court grows to serve an expected 20-25 people at a time.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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