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Mental Health Court opens in Vero

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN (Week of February 5, 2015)

After months of planning, Mental Health Court opened in Vero Beach on Jan. 27 with four suspects-turned-clients, who were diverted from incarceration by the regular judicial system to a program that has the potential to turn their lives around.

“We are un-training them, then retraining them, while listening to them and treating them like human beings, and it works,” said Lisa Fonteyn, an administrator in the new court, who has worked for years in the successful St. Lucie County Mental Health Court with Judge Cynthia Cox.

First up before Cox, who launched the Vero program with Sheriff Deryl Loar after extensive work with Lisa Kahle of the local Mental Health Collaborative, was Nate.

Nate, 59, was diverted to Vero’s Mental Health Court after walking out of the U.S. 1 Walgreen’s with a padlock in a bag with a few purchases. According to court documents, when he was stopped, he apologized and offered to pay for the lock, but didn’t have enough money to cover the $6 price and was arrested for petty theft. Court documents show that Nate was previously declared mentally incompetent.

What was striking about his appearance in Mental Health Court before Cox last Tuesday was how perplexed he seemed over how nice everyone was to him.

As the judge spoke – asking him about his prescriptions and what services he had and needed – he kept looking around the room as if he thought he were in the wrong place. And, when the judge introduced him to Karleen Russ, the supervisor of caseworkers, who smiled at him, he looked around the room again.

“He was obviously trying to figure out why everyone was so nice,” said Russ. “But we hope he’ll get used to it and improve.”

Next up was Matt, 27, who, according to court documents, is on the autism spectrum.

Matt was arrested in September and charged with trespassing for walking across the grounds of Glendale Elementary.

The arrest came after an April 1 arrest for calling the sheriff’s office and telling a dispatcher that “a bad person named Adam,” who had “four cars and four guns and green hair,” was going to Vero Beach Elementary at 1 p.m. the next day “with a bomb.”

Deputies tracked the call to Matt’s family home and arrested him for making a false report about a bomb. As part of his probation, he was not allowed to have any contact with public schools.

But six months later he walked across the grounds of Glendale Elementary and got arrested.

In court Tuesday, Cox told him: “You are here so we can help you not violate probation. Do not go near Glendale or any other school, or there is nothing I can do for you.”

Matt nodded and repeated: “I understand I cannot go near any schools.”

Another person, Denny, 64, was a no-show in court, because he was at the Behavioral Health Center instead. Denny was arrested at Indian River Medical Center after showing up in the ER at midnight, getting treated for a minor ailment and being discharged.

But he wanted to stay in the ER lobby all night. After police convinced him to leave, they saw him on the property hours later and arrested him for trespassing.

The first day of Mental Health Court in Vero last week was preceded by a staff meeting attended by about 15 people, including the judge, Loar, Kahle and assistant public defenders, assistant state attorneys, case workers and supervisors.

Cox pointed out that the court session was only a small part of what went on behind the scenes to help the people in the program.

In a few weeks, Denny is scheduled to appear along with the other men and new clients, as the process of un-training and retraining continues.

The St. Lucie County program began in 2006 with six people and now has over 1,000 people enrolled. The recidivism rate there is 8 percent, as opposed to a 78 percent rate for criminal court.