Al Ramsey stood up at a press conference last week in Davenport and shared his story of redemption in the making because of his participation in Scott County Mental Health Court. Without mental health court, the 31-year-old father of two said, “I would be in prison or dead.” Instead of heading to prison for manufacturing methamphetamine, he is learning how to be a contributing member of society and a better dad. Ramsey, who lives with schizoaffective disorder-bipolar type, is one of 12 individuals actively participating in Scott County Mental Health Court.
This program exists today because of faith-based organizing led by Quad Cities Interfaith (QCI) and supported by numerous partners. They had reason to celebrate June 30, as mental health court marked its first anniversary in Scott County. Genesis Philanthropy is increasing sponsorship of Scott County Mental Health Court to $75,000 for the next year, after contributing $50,000 last year for start-up costs.
Charity is deeply appreciated, but mental health court cannot survive on charity alone. It takes a community of partners to establish resources such as housing, education and employment, to help make people whole.
Transitions Mental Health Services coordinates Scott County Mental Health Court, collaborating with agencies whose employees work around their responsibilities in a variety of fields to keep mental health court going. Two probation officers, for example, shift their schedules so they can respond as needed to participants struggling with medication or depression. The probation officers sacrifice of themselves because they see human potential.
Mental health courts work to more appropriately treat nonviolent people with mental health conditions who have entered the criminal justice system. Prisons and jails are not adequately equipped to serve the needs of nonviolent offenders struggling with mental illness.
As noted in this editorial space a year ago, Iowa’s eight judicial districts would benefit from implementing a mental health court. At present, just three of them offer mental health court – one each in the county seat. That isn’t adequate if we consider that an estimated 30 percent of inmates in the Scott County Jail need mental health treatment.
Specialty courts such as mental health court appeared to be on the chopping block again because of the state’s severe budget problems. “But the Iowa Supreme Court decided this is too important to cut,” a grateful District Judge Mark Smith said at the press conference. “We’d have six people in prison if it weren’t for mental health court.” Costs shouldn’t be the only consideration, but Scott County has saved $160,000 in jail costs because of mental health court.
QCI Executive Director Leslie Kilgannon made a point at the press conference that readers of this newspaper should consider: Cutbacks in services, including to the judiciary, “have real consequences for our brothers and sisters in the state who need access to mental health services.”
So, what can we do about it?
• Contact your county board members, state legislators and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. Voice support for mental health court and sustained funding for it in the budget. (Go to www.legis.iowa.gov.)
• Consider partnering with QCI or Transitions Mental Health Services. Contact QCI at email@example.com or call (563) 322-4910. Contact Courtney Stenzel, Scott County Mental Health Court care coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (309) 283-1218.
• If you’d like to get involved with mental health court, or learn more about organizing support for one in your community, contact the Diocese of Davenport’s Social Action Office at (563) 888-4210.
• Organize a gathering in your community as a way to discern issues of importance. Community organizing is about ordinary people, particularly the poor and marginalized, being able to come together to express frustration and concerns and to find their voice.
• Read the state study http://tinyurl.com/ zmz4ouv) and other reports on the efficacy of diversion programs. Then share with elected officials the value that diversion programs provide to communities.
Take action, as Kilgannon says, so that people with mental illness “will continue to have a shot at turning their lives around.”
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor