Health Forward Foundation

Mental Health Officials Working to Divert Cases from Criminal Justice System

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – In 16 years of policing, Sgt. Scott Ladish had developed a straightforward approach to some of the nuisance cases he encountered on police patrol.

“I used to be like, ‘You’re drunk, you’re high, you’re on PCP, you’re on meth,’” said Ladish, an officer in the Kansas City, Kan., Police Department, “and my goal is, I don’t want to sit here and deal with you for an hour — let’s go (to jail).”

But after recently completing a 40-hour course on crisis intervention, an approach encouraged by state lawmakers, Ladish learned that an escort to a mental health crisis clinic might be a more effective response.

With a newly won two-year grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, totaling $250,000, local mental health officials said they are expanding efforts to divert cases from the criminal justice system.

Wyandot Inc., an umbrella organization that includes the Wyandot Center, a community mental health center, will use the funding to maintain weekend hours at the crisis clinic, according to Julie Solomon, chief strategic officer for Wyandot Inc.

She said the grant also would fund three new positions: two case managers to provide intensive services to help keep frequently jailed clients out of trouble, and a mental health professional, or “co-responder,” who can provide on-the-spot assistance with police in the field.

If the effort proves successful, the hope is that the positions can be sustained long-term with funding from the local government, Solomon said.

The co-responder position is the best part of the new grant, said Cadi Sanchez, service manager of emergency and stabilization services for Wyandot Center.

“I just think it’s really great to meet the clients where they are at,” she said. “Kind of getting them in the moment is very exciting.”

The Olathe Police Department already has a similar system in place.

Sgt. Ladish said he would welcome the assistance of a co-responder.

Police officers, he said, “have to listen to so many things at once,” so they might miss signs of a mental health crisis.

“Having a trained individual, who can pick up on those things as an added set of ears, is going to be fantastic, is going to be absolutely wonderful,” he said.

It will take about three to four months of planning before everything is in place, Solomon said.

According to Solomon, on average, the Wyandot Center has about 50 clients a month that combined end up spending 327 days in jail. About three quarters of the time, she said, the clients are booked on nonviolent offenses such as loitering, panhandling or on a warrant for missing a court date.

In addition, according to jail data presented by Wyandot Inc., the sheriff’s office spends as much as $30,000 a month on psychotropic drugs.

So diverting the mentally ill from the criminal justice system, Solomon said, is not only more humane, but also more cost-effective.

The grant, she said, is the latest step in a partnership between law enforcement, the courts, and the mental health community in Wyandotte County that started about two years ago to keep mental health crises from turning into a law enforcement issue.

The community is following the Sequential Intercept Model recommended by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Through that planning process, Solomon said, the sheriff’s office agreed to fund extended hours for the crisis clinic during the workweek.

The next step, she said, would be to create specialty courts to handle cases involving mental health issues.

Even the first step in that process, the crisis intervention training, proved to be an eye-opener for Sgt. Ladish.

At the training, he said, he heard firsthand from people he used to encounter while working.

Their stories, Ladish said, made him realize that substance abuse might not be causing an individual on the street to be yelling and cursing.

“The mental health aspect of it,” he said, “is far greater than what I could ever imagine.”

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