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County seems ready to fund a new mental health court

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN (Week of November 13, 2014)

Indian River County Sheriff Deryl Loar and Judge Cynthia Cox have asked the county commission to contribute $140,000 to help get a mental health court up and running in Vero Beach.

The request last week came after nine months of volunteer work by Cox and Loar – and a group set up by the Mental Health Collaborative – to figure out how to get help for people with mental problems who commit low-level crimes, as opposed to giving them prolonged jail time which often leads to their becoming career criminals.

“We can’t arrest ourselves out of mental illness. People with mental illness need a soft landing so that a defendant turns into a client,” said Cox, who heads the mental health court in St. Lucie County, which has a reputation for success backed up by solid numbers.

With Loar and the team, which includes Vero Beach Police Chief Dave Curry, other local police chiefs  and assistant chief state attorney Tom Bakkedahl, Cox want a similar court program in Indian River County, where 50 to 55 percent of the people in jail, at any given time, suffer from some form of mental illness.

Because of gaps in the local criminal justice system, these people do not get the assessments, medicines, counseling and follow-up they need to break the cycle. Instead, they often keep getting arrested, which threatens everyone’s safety, ruins their lives and costs taxpayers $90 for every day they’re in jail.

The goal of an Indian River County mental health court would be to break the cycle.

To understand how it would work, take the case of Brad, 21, whose last name is omitted at his request: In March, his mother found him mumbling incoherently and walking into walls in their gated community home in  southwest Vero. A 911 call brought police, who said they could do nothing since he was at home and not a danger to himself or others.

But after police left, Brad sneaked out of the house and staggered down the middle of Oslo Road, where cars swerved to avoid hitting him. Next, he entered an apartment complex and began knocking on doors and yelling.

Police arrested him for disorderly conduct, and in his first appearance before Judge Cox on video from the jail he argued with her that he was not in jail. But, rather than hold him in contempt and add to his problems, Cox called his family and asked what his mental issues were.

“Xanax and opiate addiction have made him totally out of it,” said his mother.

Cox committed him to New Horizons for substance abuse treatment and then got him in a 45-day residential program in Port St. Lucie.

“It saved my life,” said Brad, who has held a full-time job for the past six months and was recently promoted.

“If it hadn’t been for the diversion and the help, my son was on track to end up in prison,” said his mother.

 Lisa Fonteyn, who is the public defender liaison between those arrested and Mental Health Court in St. Lucie County, said the numbers are hugely encouraging. The St. Lucie program started in 2006 with six clients. Now, it has 1,054 clients with a recidivism rate of about 8 percent, as opposed to a 78 percent recidivism rate in criminal court.

“The great majority of people got stabilized thanks to mental health court and are productive citizens now,” said Fonteyn.

At last week’s presentation of the program to the County Commission in Indian River County, Loar promised commissioners: “Once Indian River County mental health court hits traction and starts walking on its own, it’ll be a benefit for all of us.”

The request to the county for partial funding includes $68,000 for a case manager, $30,000 for housing and treatment, $12,000 for prescription management, $6,000 for drug testing and $12,000 for peer specialists.

Commissioner Bob Solari told Cox and Loar that he wanted to see a five-year pro forma budget and wanted a monetary commitment from law enforcement and the state attorney’s office before approving funding from the county.

“I want them to have some skin in the game so they stay focused on the right things,” Solari said.

“I’m very much in favor of your proposal and we’ll vote on it on November 18th,” Commissioner Peter O‘Bryan told Cox and Loar.

Commissioner Joe Flesher commented that he liked the mental health court proposal because “it will save money on jail beds.”

“And lives,” emphasized Loar.