The Morris Rotary meeting to spread awareness on the need for a mental health court attracted a large crowd of community members looking to learn more.
In place of the club’s regular meeting Tuesday, Morris Rotary hosted a discussion among community members and leaders on a Treatment Alternative Court for people with mental health problems. About 40 people attended the event at Chapin’s restaurant in Morris.
Club President John Carr said Rotary wanted to bring the community together to work on the growing need for mental health services in Grundy County.
The panel of speakers included Judge Lance Peterson; Grundy County State’s Attorney Jason Helland; Ginny Kelly, vice president of planning and development at Morris Hospital & Healthcare Centers; Liz Thrun, social worker at Morris Hospital; and Michelle Briones, second vice president of National Alliance on Mental Illness Will-Grundy.
“These topics are important. I think everyone is here because people out there have a need for mental health services,” said Judge Peterson.
About three years Peterson spoke to Rotary about a grant possibility to start a Treatment Alternative Court, or mental health court, to provide treatment rather than punishment for the mentally ill who end up in the justice system.
The grant was requested for about $50,000, but was denied and local leaders are trying to apply again this year. They already have a team of people in place for the court, as well as a coordinator for the program, said Peterson.
Many times those with untreated illnesses are in the justice system because their illness drives them to make bad decisions or creating incidents that get them in legal trouble.
“We know for a fact people with mental illness go into the system, are prosecuted and are traditionally fined or sent to jail, and it does no good,” said Peterson. “We know what happens, they’re going to recommit.”
A specialized court system for these cases would give the justice system the tools to help these people get treatment for their mental illness and reduce the chances of them ending up back before a judge. To enter this program, the state’s attorney’s office and the public defender would identify those defendants with mental illness that could qualify. The defendant would plead guilty and commit to the two-year program in exchange for having their charge dismissed.
They would sign a contract committing to taking the medications, attending counseling and/or seeing a psychiatrist, and to other requirements. If they don’t comply in any way there are consequences and, if it continues, they would be removed from the program and sent to jail.
This court would work similarly to the drug court, in which through the program they would also get assistance in finding a job or enrolling in college to work them toward self-efficiency.
“If they are productive, the impact on mental illness is similar to drug addiction, it helps them move on with life,” said Peterson.
The goal now is to improve the application to the federal government to get the grant this time.
“The federal government wants to know the community is behind it,” said Peterson.
Part of this is to show how the county would financially support the program once the grant funding runs out.
By keeping those with mental illness out of jail, and from returning to jail, the taxpayers will save money, said Peterson. Without sharing details of a defendant, he said he could think of one specific case that the taxpayers would have saved about $200,000 if this person could have been reached with mental health services early on.
Grundy State’s Attorney Jason Helland said he worked with a mental health court in Kankakee County. He said he is looking into the possibility of applying a $10 fee to local traffic tickets that would bring in money for the special court to last long term.
One of the initial steps to this is researching the possibility and then getting the Grundy County Board’s approval.
Helland told the group about an offender he knew well in Kankakee because he was repeatedly in court for criminal trespass to a local Burger King. Whenever the man was arrested, he would tell police he didn’t understand what the problem was because he had built the Burger King, owned all the local franchises, and, he would tell police, he was married to Mariah Carey.
“He would be in custody on criminal trespass for a week or two and then be back again a week or two later. We failed as a justice system there because we didn’t treat him,” said Helland.
He continued that the county’s justice system needs to be proactive with this before a tragedy occurs locally.
He said the people behind many recent tragedies, such as school shootings, have been people suffering from untreated mental illness.
Kelly of Morris Hospital told the group that mental health and substance abuse have been at the top of the hospital’s priorities for three decades.
The hospital does not have psychiatric beds and relies on other hospitals for in-patient care, she said. But with the closing of the Tinley Park Mental Health Center, finding a place for patients has become difficult.
Thrun, hospital social worker, said before 2008 the hospitals saw between 70 and 80 patients a quarter who had to be evaluated for mental health diagnosises. Since then, it has gradually gone up and, in 2012’s first quarter, it was 110 patients and by the last quarter, it was 175. In that last quarter, 49 were referred to in-patient facilities.
Since Tinley Park closed in June, from June to December they have referred 14 patients who do not have insurance to facilities. Non-insured patients are not accepted everywhere. And from Jan. 1 to March 19, they referred 19 already, she said.
Hospital personnel have been touring other area hospitals to see how their mental health programs function and taking what they can to Morris, while still working with other area hospitals, said Kelly.
Briones, of National Alliance on Mental Illness Will-Grundy, spoke of what the organization offers, including a Family-to-Family class and a Family Support Group that meets monthly in Morris.
She said they have resources to help, its just a matter of spreading the word to Grundy about their organization.
The Family-to-Family class is a 12-week program for learning, healing and empowerment for family members and close friends to people with mental illness. They hold workshops for problem solving, communication and listening techniques.
Peterson said between all of these organizations, and the members of the justice system, and other resources, the team is in place to execute this new court if it obtains the funding.
“The more positive talk we have the more people will understand the need,” said Peterson.