Will county get next mental health
Task force gathers positive
response during tour
By TONY EVANS
For the Idaho Mountain Express
Several Blaine County
participants of a Mental Health Court Task Force that visited Idaho Falls last
month were impressed enough with the services in that city to inventory
resources in Blaine County to see what can be done here for the mentally ill.
"It was a powerful thing
to have a lot of key people together from the judiciary, law enforcement, mental
health, and community advocates, all talking and asking questions of one
another." said Tom Hanson, president of the Wood River Valley chapter of
the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Hanson was instrumental in forming
the task force.
NAMI is a Washington,
D.C.-based advocacy group with 125 affiliates nationwide. Mental health courts
are the result of collaboration in recent years between the mental health and
criminal justice systems in the United States to keep the mentally ill out of
jails and increase community-based treatment options.
A mental health court is made
up of 12 dynamic and dedicated mental health professionals known as an ACT team,
or Assertive Community Treatment. The ACT team is authorized by a judge to
conduct ongoing assessments and follow-up care for the mentally ill in a
community who have had run-ins with the law. Mental health courts have been
established in at least 50 U.S. communities since the first one was established
in Broward County, Florida, in 1997. Judge James Saint Claire’s court in Idaho
Falls is modeled on a San Bernardino, Calif., court which addresses both felony
and misdemeanor offenses.
Blaine County Magistrate Bob
Elgee observed the Idaho Falls court in progress.
"I thought the judge was
great," Elgee said. "A mental health court could keep people from
falling through the cracks here, to where they have only the State Hospital or
Canyon View as alternatives. You’d have judicial support for this, but we are
only one piece."
Ketchum Police Chief Cory
Lyman, who also went to Idaho Falls, agreed.
"We need to inventory
resources here, perhaps form partnerships, and work hard to make it happen. If
not, we would be letting a lot of people down," Lyman said.
The Idaho Falls program has
saved the state $81,000 in it’s first nine-months of operation, said ACT Team
leader Eric Olson. These are costs that would have gone toward hospitalization,
incarceration and legal fees for the 15 people enrolled in the volunteer
program. Mental Health Court clients submit to the 24-month program in lieu of
sentencing for felony and misdemeanor charges. The court provides what Olson
described as "a rather strict probation." ACT teams have been
described as hospitals without walls, taking advantage of the revolution in
psychopharmacological drugs for mental illness.
"The ACT team and staff
in Idaho Falls are far superior to anything we have here, especially, their high
level of monitoring to serve the needs of the community." said Blaine
County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tim Graves.
The Blaine County office is
assessing the case-load of severe and persistent mental illness in the county to
see if its population, one-quarter that of Idaho Falls, warrants the
establishment of a mental health court.
"First someone has to be
mentally ill. Second, they have to break the law. Right now, for cases of severe
mental illness, I don’t think that amounts to more than four or five cases per
year--if we are only counting schizophrenia and bi-polar, as they do in Idaho
Falls," Graves said.
He calls this "a real
"First they have to have
mental illness, then they have to break the law. I think this amounts to only
four or five cases a year," Graves said. "We have to sit down and have
a good look at the numbers before going to the county commissioners for
However, Hanson would like to
see more community-based treatment on the "front end" before someone
gets into serious trouble. "We could begin by getting a Crisis Intervention
Team off the ground," he said. "CIT teams are made up of a dispatcher,
trained law enforcement personnel and a psychological technician." He said
Hailey Police Chief Brian McNary is in the process of putting forward a proposal
for such a team.
Graves and others also
expressed concern for those suffering from severe depression in the county,
which has led in recent years to an increase in suicides.
Based on statistics from
Eilleen Rodman at County Health Services, there is a rapidly growing demand for
mental health services in Blaine County. In 2001, she saw 21 cases involving
mental illness. The following year the number more than doubled to 49.
"There are services
here, but people do not know about them," Rodman said. "We should make
them more visible, create networks with the crisis-hotline, the police
Of those 49 cases last year
involving mental illness and the county assistance office, nine were
involuntarily committed by a Designated Examiner to either the State Hospital or
Canyon View. What remains to be known is what happens to the other 40 people who
werenot committed, yet may be in need of help? "That is a very good
question," said Rodman. "No one can be forced into treatment. We
provide money and other forms of assistance. There are psychologists working pro
bono. But it comes down to a matter of self-respect with individuals."
Judge Elgee believes the
wording of statute 66.329 may allow for court authorization to get the people
who need mental health services to stay in service programs.
"There is a part of
statute 66.329 that may have an ‘outpatient provision.’" This provision
may allow the court to take a more "hands-on" role in encouraging
mental health treatment for those in need.
State Rep. Donna Boe,
D-Pocatello, who serves on the State Judiciary Committee, also joined the Blaine
County task force. She advised looking into the surcharge on liquor that has
been used to fund drug courts in Region VII. Mental health courts are based on
the drug court model, which also has been under way in Idaho Falls for four
years. "With so many dual-diagnoses of mental illness and drug problems it
seems a likely match," Boe said.
Boe’s colleague, Rep.Wendy
Jaquet, D-Ketchum, also thinks the liquor surcharge may be worth looking into
for funding, but warns that there is "no such thing as a surplus of funding
at the legislative level."
Jaquet advises a system
modeled on Judge Zairn’s juvenile court, which oversees underage offenses in
eight counties across the Magic Valley. "He (Zairn) gets to know the people
and the services in each county. And so there is a lot of accountability. A
judge could meet with each county mental health court one or two days a
A number of task force
delegates also toured the Pocatello Women’s Prison following the mental health
court observation in Idaho Falls.
"Any effort to stem the
tide of mentally ill from the Idaho prison system would be met with
welcome" said Thomas J. Beauclair, director of the Idaho Department of
Corrections. "There is a 7 percent annual growth rate in prison
populations, 18 percent for women, and yet they pose the least threat to our
"Currently, there are
four psychiatrists serving 1,000 mentally ill prisoners in Idaho. These are
people who 20 or 30 years ago would have been in mental hospitals. We are not
trained for this. Unfortunately, there are no advocates for prisons. We are at
the bottom of the food chain."
Hanson and NAMI plan to
gather task force participants in the near future to "see where to go from