Where law and order meets mental illness | Free Press
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Where law and order meets mental illness | Free Press

HIBBING — Minnesota’s fourth mental health court program opened on the Iron Range this Thursday, expanding the state’s efforts to provide treatment for people struggling with mental illness.

The new mental health court in Hibbing will take individuals residing in northern St. Louis County whose misdemeanors or felonies resulted from significant mental health or substance abuse issues and direct them to treatment programs. The court, meeting on Thursday afternoons, will use the model of noted specialty courts — like the mental health court established six years ago in Duluth or others in Hennepin and Ramsey counties — that seek treatment as an alternative to mass incarceration.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Michelle Anderson, who leads the Hibbing court, and who had four of the five total cases scheduled the first day, told the Hibbing Daily Tribune that “this is some of the best work that I do because it gives people an opportunity to get help in their communities and succeed rather than sit in jail.”

In an email, Treatment Court Coordinator Aleesha Ward explained that the court has “a pre-and post-adjudication program which accepts those with a significant mental illness and meet the statutory designation of serious and persistent mental illness (SPMI) or serious mental illness (SMI), which is primary and which is believed that due to lack of adequate treatment continues to be a key factor in criminal recidivism.”

The state of Minnesota defines mental illness as “an organic disorder of the brain or a clinically significant disorder of thought, mood, perception, orientation, or behavior” as detailed in diagnostic codes that “seriously limits a person’s capacity to function in primary aspects of daily living such as personal relations, living arrangements, work and recreation.”

To meet court standards, the state defines a person with SPMI as an adult who has a mental illness and meets at least one of the following criteria: A) undergone two or more episodes of inpatient care for a mental illness within 24 months; B) experienced a continuous psychiatric hospitalization or residential treatment exceeding six months in the previous year; C) treated by a crisis team two or more times in the past 24 months; D) diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, schizoaffective disorder or borderline personality disorder; E) committed by a court as a person who is mentally ill in the past three years; F) has a written opinion from a mental health professional in the last three years saying the adult is likely to have future episodes requiring inpatient or residential treatment; and G) had been eligible as a child and is under age 21.

On Thursday, the judge’s first case involved a 23-year-old Chisholm man who pleaded guilty earlier this year to fifth-degree possession of methamphetamine, a gross misdemeanor. The Mental Health Team — including probation officers, prosecutors, defense lawyers and mental health experts — had screened him according to rules aligned with the National Drug Court Institute and Minnesota Treatment Court Standards. The team, which considered the results of his psychological evaluation and a chemical dependency assessment, determined he met at least one of the court’s requirements for being a person with a SPMI. A judge then sentenced him to a stay of adjudication to serve 308 days in the St. Louis County Jail and ordered the probation condition of completing the five-phased mental health court program.

Sporting a cap, T-shirt, cargo shorts and flip flops, *Jim* entered the courtroom in Hibbing and sat beside county probation officers Kelli Horvath and Scott Carlson and assistant public defender Bhupesh Pattni. He placed his hat on the table and palmed a sobriety coin from his recovery group. (*Names of all participants have been changed to maintain their privacy.*)

The judge ensured Jim had the mental health court’s handbook and introduced him to several members of the team: Annmarie Florest, the clinical director of the Range Mental Health Center; Brandon Mattson, a substance abuse counselor at Partners in Recovery; and Vern Manner, the Chisholm police chief; and Ward. These are the people responsible for reviewing cases and determining whether an offense is linked to mental illness.

“Everyone in this room works with your probation officer to get you successfully living in our community,” Anderson said. “But part of it’s on you. There are incentives and there might have to be sanctions. But by all accounts, you’re doing really well right now.”

It was less than a year ago when an officer at the Army National Guard in Hibbing reported seeing a “suspicious party” trying to get rid of handguns on the armory, describing him as “nervous, sweating, jerking, thoughts all over the place, and appearing to be on some kind of drugs or medication,” according to district court records. The Hibbing Police Department tracked down Jim, who was on standard supervised probation after receiving a stay of adjudication for a drug-related offense. His probation officer gave police permission to enter his home and assist with a search since he was subject to searches as a condition of his probation.

The probation officer found two 9mm loaded magazines for different firearms and a backpack containing residue of marirjuna and meth, two syringes, a Velcro arm restrictor and one Winchester 9 mm luger bullet. When asked about the magazines, Jim told the officer “there was a physical altercation in the hallway of his apartment with an individual who he did not know” and that he “kicked the individual down the stairs and the unknown individual fled out to his vehicle stating he was going to get another gun.” He continued, saying he picked up a firearm the individual dropped and passed the gun to a person in the nearby city of Keewatin. Police spoke with that person, but they claimed they had not seen Jim in months. Later, Jim told law enforcement that he took the firearm from his girlfriend’s mother’s home and tried selling it to someone in Chisholm, but he did not get any money for it. He then admitted to owning and using the meth. His criminal history showed he had convictions for petty misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia.

This week, in response to the judge’s questions, Jim revealed that his girlfriend is now his fiancee and that he is the father of a young boy and girl. His daughter will turn a year old over the weekend. Still, yesterday was “a bit of a struggle” for him because he felt “triggered” after driving his fiancee to her job in Chisholm. He called his parents, who picked him up and brought him to a recovery meeting.

“What is it about Chisholm?” Anderson asked.

“My dealer lives there,” Jim replied.

“Where did you learn those tools to get out of the situation?”

“I’ve been to treatment. Things are clicking this time.”

“Sounds like you have support. And you have a significant other and two children. Your daughter is turning one. That’s an age you don’t want to miss. Avoiding dealers is always good.”

Anderson made a point to tell Jim that he was the first participant in the new mental health court. She explained that during the 60-day first phase of the program, he will be expected to attend weekly court hearings, treatment and mental health therapy and regular visits with his new probation officer while working with team members to address housing, transportation, insurance and medication needs. He must remain sober for at least 14 consecutive days before moving to the second phase.

“If you need additional support, don’t hesitate to call Aleesha or Kelly,” Anderson said.

The team showered Jim with words of encouragement as they would to all of the court’s participants.

“I met you the second day of treatment last month and you look wonderful,” said Mattson, the substance abuse counselor. “Good decision-making. Good job.”

Manner, the police chief, added, “In this courtroom is a collage of people that want to help you. You have our support.”

Jim replied, “I appreciate this and I’m very grateful,” before offering several phrases memorized from his recovery group meetings that help him in his journey to stay sober on a day-today basis.

•••

In the 1960s, a well-intended plan under the Kennedy administration to deinstitutionalize people suffering from mental illness and integrate services to community-based care resulted in cut funds for state psychiatric beds and overcrowding of jails with individuals suffering from SPMIs, according to studies from Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul. Many states across the U.S. have since closed large state-run hospitals for people with mental illness who have found themselves cycling in and out of jail.

Broward County in southern Florida reportedly created the first mental health court in 1997 to help the growing population of people with mental illness. The innovative step garnered much attention across. Then the Council of State and Local Governments reported in 2002 that “people with mental illness are falling through the cracks of this country’s social safety net and are landing in the criminal justice system at an alarming rate.”

Hennepin County — the most populated county in Minnesota with 1.2 million residents — created the state’s first mental health court in 2003. Ramsey County followed suit two years later in a setting of 500,000 residents. St. Louis County began its own court in 2009, but the program would only be open to a portion of its 200,000 residents. That is because the county is the only one in the state that establishes courthouses by statute for transportation purposes. There remains an invisible split across the belly of the county that separates the courthouses in Duluth from those in Hibbing and Virginia.

It was Sixth District Judge Sally Tarnowski who found it “compelling to see how much chemical use and mental illness was a part of the folks coming through the criminal justice system” that led her to start the mental health court in the southern part of the county in Duluth. The court was started with one participant. No grant money, only a group of volunteers.

The court now receives funding from the Minnesota Department of Human Services and accepted a maximum of 30 participants. Unlike the county’s drug and alcohol treatment courts, the mental health court does accept cases involving people accused and convicted of both nonviolent and violent crimes. “We’ve had arsonists, bank robbers, serious assaults, domestic assault, theft,” Tarnowski said this week during a phone interview with the HDT. “We assess everyone on a case-by-case basis. We make sure a mental illness contributed to the offense and if someone committed a serious offense we want to measure that person and make sure they’re not harming anyone.”

Tarnowski’s willingness to take on violent offenders came in need to face the dwindling number of state-run psychiatric centers. “We were not prepared for it and the community-based facilities were not able to handle the number of people out of state hospitals,” Tarnowski said. “It was a crisis situation that shouldn’t have happened so quickly and then all jails around the country have since turned into mental health facilities.”

Several years ago, the Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor published an evaluation report, “Mental Health Services in County Jails” that echoed her sentiment when describing jails and prisons as “the new asylums.”

“It’s not an ideal situation for someone with a mental illness to be in jail,” Tarnowski said. “And if our nation is going to have jails be our largest psychiatric care centers, then we should treat them that way. We should have psychiatrists at jails to help people rather than what we’re doing now. It’s no fault of the jail. It’s a societal thing. We’re criminalizing our mentally ill and not appropriating them for living in communities.”

Between 2014 and 2016, the mental health court in Duluth reported a total of 39 participants, according to Jacqueline Buffington, a forensic clinical psychologist and an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth who consults for the district’s treatment courts. From that snapshot, 38.5 percent were diagnosed with bipolar disorders; 33 percent, schizophrenia disorders; 28 percent, major or severe depression; 15 percent, anxiety; and 10 percent, post-traumatic-stress-disorder. Most participants had more than one disorder, while 95 percent of them had co-occuring issues mental health and chemical dependency issues.

Nineteen of the 39 participants graduated from the court program, while 14 were terminated in which cases they might have executed their sentence and gone to jail or prison. Still, there was a 91.5 reduction across the board in felonies while the participants were in the program.

In the spring of 2018, the Hennepin County Mental Health Court reported that 50 percent of its 175 participants graduated from the program. While participating, 57 percent of them spent no time in jail and 58 percent who exited did not recidivate within two years. There was a 42 percent drop in unemployment and 86 percent of participants left the program with health insurance coverage.

•••

For the past three years, Judge David Ackerson worked beside St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin and Sixth District Chief Public Defender Dan Lew to run an informal mental health court in Virginia.

In 2018, Tarnowski, who is now the district’s chief judge, began conversations with Judge Anderson and Judge Rachel Sullivan in hopes of formalizing the court on the Iron Range. Earlier that year, Sullivan, a native of Chisholm, became the first female to serve as a district court judge in Hibbing. The previous year, Anderson was appointed as the first female district judge to serve in Virginia. She currently presides over the Range Hybrid Treatment Court Program for people convicted of drug-and alcohol-related felonies.

In February, St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Jugovich, who represents Chisholm and Hibbing on the county board, penned a letter to Anderson offering his support in formalizing the court, saying, “a dedicated Mental Health Court is a valuable and much needed service to our community” and “the program has proved successful with those in our community who have participated.” One month later, Sullivan told the HDT in her chambers that the she and Anderson were seeking approval from the Minnesota’s Treatment Court Initiative Advisory Committee and Judicial Council. “I think it’s important to have specialty courts serving the Range,” Sullivan said. “We like what we’re seeing in the mental health court in Duluth and want one to benefit our communities.”

In May, the Judicial Council approved the court program, with a capacity of 30 participants. Anderson and her team have since secured $143,000 per year in funding from the state Department of Human Services to last from Fiscal Year 2020-2022.

•••

On Thursday, Anderson presided over three more cases, one involving a 49-year-old Hibbing man who was convicted of fourth-degree assault on a peace officer, a gross misdemeanor.

Two years ago, Hibbing police responded to a report that *Robert* walked out his back door and fired three rounds from a long rifle over the roof of his neighbor’s house, before returning inside his own home, according to district court reports. This was not the first time Robert shot the rifle in that way.

Police stated that Robert did not let them into his home. When his mother arrived on scene, she told officers her son “had recently been admitted to the hospital on mental health holds, however, neither the hospital nor her son, would tell her anything regarding the hospitalizations.” She said her late husband killed himself with a firearm and that she was worried about Robert since he had lost his business and had been struggling to find work.

When the mother used a key to get into the home, her son ran to the door, yelled and began shoving her. He then grabbed the officer’s arm and headbutted him just below the eye. Officers handcuffed him and transported him to Fairview University Medical Center-Mesabi in Hibbing, where he was placed on a mental health hold.

“How are you doing today? Is this overwhelming?” Anderson asked during the court hearing.

“I’m doing alright, thank you,” Robert said, his mother sitting behind him in the courtroom. He went on to tell the judge that he has been spending time with his family and at social events in the local church.

“We’ll get you connected with any services you might need in our community. That’s our goal.”

“That’s very comforting.”

Another participant who had been convicted of third-degree driving while impaired and received a stay of adjudication for possession of meth, told the judge that she was hoping to move out of the Eveleth-based Katherine’s House, a licensed board and lodge facility specializing in supporting women struggling with mental health and chemical dependency issues, among other services. *Lauren*, 32, of Hibbing, planned to use money from her Social Security checks to pay rent at a nearby assisted living facility. She told the judge that she has been diagnosed with attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety and schizophrenia and wanted to readjust her medication for ADHD. “I was on one for four years before treatment that worked well,” Lauren said. “Can I be on it and monitored? My doctor wants to wait six more months, but I’m suffering.” The judge acknowledged that the team has a nurse practitioner yet lacks a medical doctor but they would discuss options with her doctor and probation officer.

The calm atmosphere in the courtroom changed when 49-year-old *Melissa* from Chisholm told the judge that she no longer wanted to stay at the Merritt House Intensive Residential Treatment Center in Virginia. A month ago, she was convicted of possessing counterfeit currency, a felony, for trying to use a fake $100 bill to buy beer at a local bar. She told the judge she now had enough money saved to find an apartment of her own. “You did well in treatment, but you were ordered to stay at the Merritt House as a condition and you left twice,” Anderson said. “You don’t have a home. It’s not a good situation. It’s concerning behavior and I’d rather see you in the community, but that’s not an option today.” The back-and-forth lasted for some time, with Melissa arguing that she was staying at her friend’s house and that she did not want to be penalized for leaving the house. The judge said she could request a hearing to discuss the matter further.

“I want my life. I did what I was told to do. It was counterfeit money,” Melissa said. “Now I have the opportunity to get an apartment and I want my own apartment. I haven’t been running around.”

“Will you test clean today?” Anderson asked.

“I for sure have some THC. But I will stay away from everything. I promise.”

A corrections officer handcuffed Lauren, before the judge added: “I don’t want to see you sitting in jail, but you absconded from supervision twice and you need to know you can’t make your own rules.” The officer then escorted her out of the courtroom to get transported to the County Jail for the next seven days before her court hearing next week.

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