Page A1 | Richmond Times-Dispatch

As Henrico seeks mental health record in place, diversion program prevents some from entering jail

A team of officials from the Henrico County Court is requesting a specialized case to deal with non-violent criminal offenses for people with mental health issues.

Until there is county funding and then Virginia Supreme Court approval, a $ 72,675 grant from the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services helps release from prison and undergo treatment. those who might otherwise be incarcerated. Additional savings of $ 100,000 over previous years supported the program.

“The point of all of this is to give people the help they need,” said Lauren Caudill, judge of the Henrico General District Court.

People like Cara Tolliver, who was arrested in December on two counts of drug possession. She was assessed for the program, and with existing diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression, and borderline personality disorder, she was admitted, connected to services, and released from prison within three weeks.

She graduated from the program on July 13.

“It saved my life,” Tolliver said of the program. “When I was locked up, it would have been my second and my third [convictions]. I was just ready to sit in jail.

Tolliver said she served two years on a previous conviction, so she was incredulous this time around “just to hear the judge say she’s proud of me and the police applaud me,” Tolliver said. One of her charges was dropped and the other was reduced to a misdemeanor, for which she received only a suspended sentence.

“It’s good to see people realizing that you can’t just jail people and expect them to get better,” Tolliver said.

Caudill is leading the effort, along with Commonwealth Deputy Chief Prosecutor Michael Huberman and Sara Tolentino, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical supervisor of prison diversion teams.

Defendants with a mental health diagnosis tend to reoffend, the judge said, and during the pandemic the county has seen a drastic increase in the number of defendants with mental illness.

The diversion program began in April 2020 in response to the surge, which follows a national trend that could be the result of the pandemic and economic recession.

During the pandemic, about 4 in 10 American adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, compared with 1 in 10 who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey.

In Henrico, participation is limited to those who are already in prison, which is why the group wants to create the specialist case that would extend eligibility to anyone with a mental health diagnosis who has a pending charge in a lower court. whether or not she is being held in prison.

“I wish I could enroll more people in the program without having to see a jail cell,” said defense lawyer Linda Scott, who has several clients who have completed the program and others who are currently enrolled. She has agreed to play a more active role, if the file is approved.

Two people were released from prison on July 20 after agreeing to the terms of the diversion program, which coordinates intensive treatment including medication adherence and supervision in return for their release. Each exit plan is tailored to the individual, Tolentino said.

“You’ll come this way rather than there,” Caudill told each of the two people, pointing to the main public entrance to the courtroom from the door that leads to the prison.

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In last year, 87 people were referred to the program, according to his supervisor, Tolentino. Now, referrals are coming in faster, with eight last month and three last week, she said. Of these, 38 people were successfully removed from prison, either before the trial or after the trial.

Currently, eight are enrolled in the program, according to Tolentino.

Scott said two clients asked him to sign up last week.

“When a program works, you don’t even have to advertise it,” the defense attorney said.

References to the program can come from one of the judges at the General District Court of Henrik, defense attorneys, prosecutors or even the police. Henry’s police play a vital role in the program, particularly the division’s Crisis Intervention Training Team, which typically responds to mental health calls. The team often makes the first attempt at diversion, trying an emergency engagement in a hospital rather than arresting a person if necessary, Tolentino said.

“When these programs are there, everyone, including lawyers, knows how to look for these cases,” Caudill said. “They’ve always been around, but we’re starting to understand how to better identify them.

Disqualifying offenses include anything that involves violence or drugs, as they might be better suited to drug court, a separate specialist case for those struggling with drug addiction. But in cases like Tolliver’s, addiction is often the result of underlying mental health issues.

Tolliver said she was introduced to drugs and alcohol at a young age and used them to deal with childhood trauma that resulted in various diagnoses. She takes medicine for frequent panic attacks and night terrors.

“You feel great for a while,” she said. “Then you are trapped by the things you thought you helped. Once you quit the drugs, this is the easy part. Then you have to deal with all the mental issues. “

Tolliver said she didn’t know where to turn for help. But the diversion program took her to a rehab home and put her in touch with a support system that was there for her when she needed it most.

Tolliver, 29, from King George County, did not have access to this support at home, so she is currently staying in the Richmond area.

During the 2020 session, the General Assembly promulgated the Behavioral Health Record Law, facilitating the establishment of the specialty record. In 2021, the legislator expanded the law, allowing the participation of those charged in counties where they do not live.

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Currently there is 13 mental health records in the state. Three are in Richmond, which has a separate specialist case for circuit, general district, and juvenile and domestic relations courts. Hampton and Arlington created records late last year, so data on those programs was not included in a 2020 review of active records by the state Supreme Court.

This study shows that less than a quarter of participants in the Statewide Behavioral Health Registry graduated last year. But it takes almost a year to graduate – the average length of time on the graduate registry was 312 days – which may explain the low graduation rate.

Just over a quarter of last year’s participants were fired due to poor performance, excessive relapses, a new criminal offense, or a leak.

More than a year after the diversion program began, officials at Henrico said they were just starting to see positive results. The program serves as a stopgap until they get approval from the mental health court.

“Success is getting them into treatment,” Caudill said. “Success is providing them with housing and stability. Success is preventing them from reoffending.

Caudill described the physical transformations she observed from the first time she saw someone in court and ordered an assessment to measure her competence until her release.

“It’s amazing the change you see,” she said.

Work really begins after release, Tolentino said. She and another case manager work with the accused while they are still in prison to stabilize their medications and identify providers who will continue treatment after their release.

“We don’t want them to have these intensive services, so nothing,” she said. “The starting point is really their release from prison.”

Tolentino and his colleagues keep a close watch on the participants, but the court receives infrequent updates when the defendant returns to court. Weekly case appeals would be another benefit of the specialized court, Caudill said.

Halfway through the program, Tolliver said she “panicked” and ran away from the convalescent home. She relapsed and overdosed. She said she died while a paramedic was doing CPR until she was finally resuscitated, she said.

When she woke up in the hospital, “the first people who were there for me” were from the recovery house and the diversion program, she said.

“When you relapse, you are so ashamed. That’s why we’re not coming home, ”Tolliver said. “But they welcomed me again. From that point on, I was totally in the program.

Huberman said the behavioral health record “can look a lot less like a court,” taking some of the stress out of the situation that could cause even those who are doing well to relapse.

“You’d be surprised how many people offend because they know they’re in crisis,” Huberman said. “This is the way to get help.”

The end result differs depending on the charge and the terms of their participation in the program, but, for many, the charges that brought them to court could be dropped if they successfully complete the program.

“They’re hopeful,” Scott said of those she’s seen graduating, like Tolliver, whom she represented. “A lot of times they had given up, and they thought the system had given up on them.”

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