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Center a liaison for authorities
With mental health services

Sunday, November 17, 2013


The new Crisis Intervention Team Assessment Center is a place where law enforcement officers can take people in mental health crisis for evaluation and, if appropriate, referral to services, such as community mental health services or hospitalization.

The first few weeks after the assessment center opened Sept. 30, 15 patients were seen — about one per day it was open, officials said. The assessment center is at Memorial Hospital in Martinsville near the emergency department.

Some officials said they believe the center benefits patients, the hospital, law enforcement and the community.

Officers routinely encounter people in mental health crisis while on their shifts. Examples include when officers are doing wellness checks; people may call 911 seeking help; people may be threatening or a danger to themselves or others, or hearing voices, or having delusional thoughts. And sometimes officers transport people in mental health crisis for whom emergency custody orders have been issued.

Jim Tobin, executive director of Piedmont Community Services, estimated that about 18 months ago, a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) was formed to provide training for law enforcement officers from the sheriff’s offices of Henry, Patrick and Franklin counties and Martinsville, and the Martinsville and Ferrum College police departments.

Officers receive 40 hours of training on best practices on how to recognize and interact with people they encounter with mental health issues, and how to get them services they need if appropriate, rather than just taking them to jail, according to Tobin.

An inter-related program is the assessment center. It is staffed with a mental health professional and law enforcement officer from 2 p.m. until midnight Mondays through Thursdays, according to Tobin and an email from Piedmont Community Services. Plans are to expand to seven days a week by around year’s end, according to the email.

Both the CIT and the assessment center programs share common goals of increasing access to mental health services and diverting people with mental health issues away from the criminal justice system if appropriate, Tobin said.

An October news release from the Virginia attorney general’s office said that currently, more than 25 percent of the statewide jail population has been diagnosed with mental health issues, and more than 12 percent were diagnosed with serious mental illnesses.

Tobin said national statistics show that too often, people with mental/behavioral health issues are arrested because their problems are not recognized or there are no better alternatives.

Tobin said incarcerating people who don’t need to be in jail but rather need mental health treatment “is a tremendous waste of money” and the people don’t get the services they need.

One of the advantages of the assessment center is that an on-duty law enforcement officer can transfer custody of a person with mental health issues to the off-duty officer at the assessment center, and the on-duty officer can get back on the road to his or her other duties, Tobin said.

“Instead of being tied up for hours, (the on-duty officer) can be out in 20 minutes,” Tobin said. That helps public safety because the officer is back in the community much sooner, and it reduces overtime costs for on-duty officers, Tobin added.

The assessment center also saves the hospital time and money and frees up emergency room beds because, unless people with mental health issues have medical problems, they can be evaluated at the assessment center and referred to appropriate services, such as community mental health services or in more serious cases, hospitalization. That’s according to Tobin and Gloria Johnson, a Piedmont Community Services counselor who conducts assessments and makes referrals at the assessment center.

7Community mental health services are less expensive and less intrusive than hospitalization, Tobin has said.

Tobin said he considers the programs a “win-win” for everyone involved.

Johnson said she thinks the assessment center is working well and speeding up the process for people to receive mental health evaluations and referrals for treatment. She said law enforcement officers and hospital staff like it. “I think it’s a great program,” she added.

Of the 15 people seen at the assessment center, four went to in-patient hospitalization and most of the rest were given information about outpatient or community services available, she said.

She told about a boy brought in one afternoon who already was receiving treatment on an outpatient basis but who now needed to be hospitalized. Through the assessment center, arrangements were made for the boy to be hospitalized that same night, instead of waiting until the next day, Johnson said.

Sgt. John Robinson of the Henry County Sheriff’s Office is familiar with both CIT and the assessment center. He completed CIT training, works at the assessment center and has delivered patients to the assessment center, according to Robinson and an email from Piedmont Community Services.

Robinson said he was certified as a CIT officer several months ago. “That school was a good eye-opener,” he said.

He learned ways to de-escalate crises, ways to cut down use of force and resolve things more peacefully instead of hauling people off to jail, ways to communicate with people and understand what they are going through, and about available community services, he said.

He said he has found people with mental health issues to be receptive when he told them there is a counselor from Piedmont Community Services at the assessment center with whom they can talk about their problems. “It’s helping people see there is an immediate intervention that can occur,” he said.

From a patrol officer’s perspective, he said, the assessment center frees up patrol officers within minutes instead of having to wait several hours for patients to be evaluated.

“It’s going to be a win-win for consumers (patients), police agencies and the public,” he said.

Tobin said this fiscal year, funding for CIT and/or the assessment center includes $263,000 from the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, $58,223 from the Department of Criminal Justice Services and $166,210 (spread over two years) from the Virginia attorney general’s office.


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