‘Really important conversations’ sought by Kentucky Judicial Commission on Mental Health

The Kentucky Judicial Commission on Mental Health held a town hall at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center in Covington Sept. 6. This was the second in a series of town halls the commission will hold throughout the state this year. The next one will be Wednesday in Ashland. 

“These town hall meetings throughout the state will be analyzed by our staff to identify resources, needs and opportunities for the commission and our community partners to act on and improve experience for those with mental illness, substance use disorder, intellectual or developmental disabilities,” said Kentucky Supreme Court Deputy Chief Justice Debra Hembree Lambert, who chairs the commission.

The commission was established in August last year to explore alternative ways the judicial, criminal justice and other state systems interact with people with mental illness, substance abuse problems and disabilities. The town halls are one of the commission’s means of collecting feedback and recommendations from community members and professionals.

The event was well-attended, and audience members included representatives from local law enforcement, the courts and private mental health and substance abuse agencies, including St. Elizabeth Hospital, Sun Behavioral Health and the Northern Kentucky Area Development District.

Several other officials also attended: Kenton County Attorney Stacy Tapke, Kenton County Circuit Court Clerk John Middleton, Kentucky Court of Appeals Chief Judge Larry Thompson and Supreme Court Justice Michelle Keller.

A panel of commission members headed up the event. It consisted of Lambert, Secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet of Health and Family Services Eric Friedlander, the commission’s Behavioral Health Liaison Jennifer Van Ort-Hazzard and Dr. Katherine Marks from the Kentucky Department for Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities.

The panel invited people in the audience to share their stories and thoughts of how people with mental illness, substance abuse disorders and disabilities could be better served by the legal system. The hope was that statements given could be used to craft new policies and mechanisms for better serving those populations.

People were hesitant to speak at first, but eventually, representatives from different service agencies in the region came up to share the things they liked about how the region dealt with mental illness and related issues. Many of the initial comments were laudatory.

“I’m proud to say that I work with Kenton County because it’s one of the most successful counties I’ve seen when it comes to re-entry,” said Gerry Long, the Northern Kentucky liaison for Addiction Recovery Care, a service agency with numerous locations throughout the state.

Long is in active recovery himself, recently celebrating six years of sobriety, and has dedicated his life to helping others get services.

“I’ve worked with a lot of these people in this room,” Long said. “[Kenton County is] light-years above some of the other counties that I work in when it comes to this.”

As more and more people took to the microphone, however, attendees became more comfortable voicing some of their concerns.

Shuffled between hospitals and jails

Jim Beiting, the CEO of Transitions, a residential treatment center, wanted to see more resources put towards the treatment of gambling addiction, which he said was often overlooked.

He said that about 24% of the patients who come through Transitions have self-reported struggles with gambling.

“Gambling addiction gets people into the criminal justice system, but there’s not that referral to treatment,” Beiting said, adding that he would like to see more incentives and policy changes to help people who struggle with gambling addiction get proper treatment rather than being thrown around in the justice system.

Paul Dierig, the population coordinator at the Kenton County Detention Center, was also among the first to highlight some of the shortcomings in the system, particularly with people who had severe, long-term mental illness that made them dangerous to either themselves or others.

According to Dierig, people with severe mental illness often get shuffled around between hospitals and jails, often with inadequate care.

“So they’re down [at Eastern State Hospital] for maybe one or two days. They come back with medication, and they go right back to isolation. It’s just a process over and over again,” Deirig said.

Friedlander agreed.

“We need intervention before we send law enforcement out, who have 10 hours of training on behavioral health services” Friedlander said. “… We need to support a different way of crisis intervention, a different array of services around behavioral health.”

Friedlander discussed the closing of residential psychiatric facilities in the 1950s and 1960s.

“The funding never followed,” Friedlander said. “And so we moved the whole population from psychiatric hospitals to corrections, and I think we’ve seen that accumulate and accelerate over the past 50 years.”

Todd Rice, a former police officer and chief deputy jailer at the Kenton County Detention Center, stepped up to say that one of the issues law enforcement encounters is the lack of established facilities for long-term mental health care, even though there are established facilities for substance abuse and other short-term mental health treatment.

“We don’t have any places to take these people,” Rice said. “All we can do is try to reason with them at the scene.”

By Rice’s telling, jails and detention centers are often at a loss for what to do. What’s more, sometimes people with intellectual disabilities or mental illness may not even understand the situation they’re in.

“They don’t understand what they’ve done, yet here we have them at a jail facility throughout the state of Kentucky because we’re full of them,” Rice said.

“We as police officers who are out there on the street need some place else and another tool in our toolbox to help these individuals,” Rice added. “Jail is not the place.”

Laurie Wilson, the social worker for the Campbell County Police Department, added to this criticism by drawing attention to the lack of mandatory follow-up care.

Wilson is one of a handful of police social workers in the region. Police social workers review police reports daily to see who may benefit from services in lieu of conventional police action. She said that many people she encounters would benefit from consistent longer-term care, but there’s currently no mechanism to mandate people get services.

Child care, transportation obstacles to recovery

“They might be stable at first on medication, but they’re not getting follow-up care,” Laurie Wilson said. “There’s no forced treatment for that.”

Jessa Green, who works for St. Elizabeth’s Journey Recovery Center, said that child care and transportation are among the biggest barriers for treatment.

“Especially when you’re talking about these rural counties,” Green said.

Jay Wilson — a public advocate for Campbell County who was very careful to say that his comments were his own and not necessarily a reflection of the public advocates’ office — wanted to see reforms around the state’s specialty courts and probation system.

“A lot of people will be offered probation, and they won’t be able to complete it because of their addiction,” Jay Wilson said.

He added that he believed prosecutors had too much discretionary power in granting access to drug courts and other specialty courts. According to Wilson, one can only get access to drug and mental health court if a prosecutor offers it or if a judge mandates it after someone’s “already violated their probation.”

Wilson wanted to see the power taken out of prosecutors’ hands and put in the hands of the courts generally.

“For instance, the courts can say, you know what, due to these circumstances for this one person, they deserve drug court or mental health court over and above that additional supervision and help rather than just going to probation,” Wilson said.

“I don’t blame parole officers for not being social workers,” he added. “They’re not. They’re not equipped and tasked to deal with the immense struggles that some of my clients face.”

“These are really important conversations,” Friedlander said. “So I don’t want you to feel that what you share would fall on deaf ears. … We know we have things we can improve.”

How can the legal system better serve Kentuckians who have mental illness?

The Kentucky Judicial Commission on Mental Health will hold its next town hall Wednesday, Sept. 13, at 6 p.m. at the Delta Marriott hotel in Ashland. It will be free and open to the public.

Other town halls:

Sept. 27, London, London Community Center 529 S. Main St.;

Oct. 11, Lexington, Central Bank Center 430 W. Vine St.;

Oct. 25, Paducah, Paducah McCracken County Convention & Expo Center 415 Park Ave.;

Nov. 8, Louisville, Kentucky International Convention Center 221 S. 4th St.;

Nov. 15, Pikeville, Appalachian Wireless Arena 126 Main St.;

Nov. 29, Bowling Green, Sloan Convention Center, 1021 Wilkinson Trace.

Email JCMH@kycourts.net with questions about the commission’s work or to learn more about mental health and addiction services in Kentucky.


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