SYCAMORE – A woman appears in DeKalb County Court via closed-circuit TV. Before Judge Philip Montgomery can greet her, she asks a chilling question:
“Can you help me?”
As the judge tries to get a word in, she asks again.
A few days later, another woman spends more than 20 minutes trying to convince the court that she can get her brother to Kishwaukee Hospital for a mental evaluation.
The chief concern: Will he again fight with her, punch an officer, as he’s accused of having done the last time she tried to get him to his appointment?
Neither of the defendants has a criminal history.
On Monday, the county’s court system began a mental health court program geared to intervene when residents find themselves in a potential downward spiral.
“What we want to do is not even have them get into the criminal justice system,” said Deanna Cada, director of the Community Mental Health Board, which funds the county’s psychiatric support. “There’s a difference between someone who is criminal and [someone who] has a mental illness.
“For criminals, the criminal intent is what’s driving them. Some people have a mental illness that’s driving their actions. The best thing to do is to sort those people out before they even get to the system.”
DeKalb County State’s Attorney Rick Amato, who took office Dec. 1, during the Mental Health Court program’s development, said it gives the justice system another tool to help the community.
“Traditionally, there are needs that haven’t been met because we’re not finding the cause,” Amato said. “They don’t belong in jail, or in court over and over again. What else can you do to help these people?
“This program will help answer that, and will help us make our community a lot safer.”
How it works
The mental health court program is similar to the county’s drug and DUI court programs, recognized by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals as model programs nationwide.
Certified by the Administrative Office of Illinois Court on April 5, the program kicked off Monday, when two people pleaded guilty and were put into the program. Adult Redeploy Illinois funds the program with a grant, on the condition that at least eight people are assisted a year. Douglas said 32 people already have applied in DeKalb County.
According to a news release from the county’s treatment court, sites receiving the grant are expected to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders sent to prison by 25 percent. It adds that the average cost for each offender entering the prison system is about $6,400, compared with $3,000 for the program’s intervention.
Only those charged with felony charges, which carry a prison term of a year or longer, are eligible for the program. Once referred to the program, they go through court proceedings. Anyone from their support system can be in court along with them.
After they plead guilty and opt for the program, treatment courts director Mike Douglas does a preliminary assessment.
Prosecutors have the right to object to including someone. If they do not, the person will undergo a comprehensive assessment by a team of counselors, jail staff and attorneys – from both the state’s attorney’s office and the public defender’s office – who have the final decision on admittance.
“It’s definitely a nice thing to have the team approach – it’s not one-sided at all,” Douglas said. “Everyone has a voice on the team. It’s nice to have perspective from other departments.”
The team expands after admission, with the Ben Gordon Center through Northwestern Medicine’s KishHealth System, Hope Haven and other agencies providing resources for guidance, treatment and intervention – not just at the point of diagnosis, but long thereafter.
Another key agency is the Regional Access and Mobilization Project. Its job is to help make sure participants become productive and have a feeling of self-worth once back on the streets.
Douglas said that although drug and DUI program participants typically are in the program about two years, the timeline likely will be longer for mental health program participants.
“Mental health can seem to be a revolving door,” Douglas said.
“You see the names of people who are arrested multiple times,” Cada said. “Often, those are people who have mental health issues. We need to get them out of that cycle of arrest, being jailed and not getting services. Mental Health Court should be the break in the cycle.”
Douglas and others say Judge Robbin Stuckert was a driving force behind the program, but counselor Andre Joachim also was quick to credit Douglas for his tenacity.
“He’s been fighting tooth and nail for this,” Joachim said. “A lot of people might not understand the life circumstances, the challenges many of these people face. The limited contact I have with them makes me want to connect them with community support that’s not always open to people in their position.”
The program has been in development for about two years, and finally landed its grant money in the fall, allowing time to get all the ducks in a row, so to speak. The hands on deck have been eager to get to work for the program to be certified.
“We’ve been anxiously awaiting starting the program,” Stuckert said. “We know it’s much-needed throughout the community.”