(Aug. 2, 2017) Catherine Read talks with Laura Yager, of the Fairfax County Executive’s Office, about the Diversion First Program here in Fairfax County, Virginia. The initiative grew out of collaborative efforts among the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Department, Fairfax County Police and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisor’s Chairman, Sharon Bulova.
In 2015, Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid organized an exploratory trip to Bexar County, Texas, to learn more about their model of Crisis Intervention Training (CIT). After 26 years in the Sheriff’s Department prior to her election, Sheriff Kincaid was struck by how many of those incarcerated in the county’s jail were suffering from mental health issues. Over a period of years, local jails in Virginia and across the country have become de facto psychiatric facilities. That presents situations for those who work in these facilities for which they have not been trained.
Crisis Intervention Training has been designed to help diffuse and de-escalate situations where law enforcements comes into contact with those in a mental health crisis, as well as those in the Intellectual and Developmental Disability community who may have trouble processing instructions or interpreting the actions of law enforcement officers. It’s not always evident to officers that someone they are engaged with is on the Autism spectrum or has a developmental disability. Families with older children in the disability community now have the option of requesting a CIT trained officer when they call 911 to help with a domestic situation where there is a possibility of harm to the child or to others in the home. Anyone phoning 911 can make that same request. CIT training is provided on a regular basis to the county’s law enforcement personnel to increase the percentage of officers on the force who have these skills.
The Merrifield Crisis Response Center (MCRC) was launched as part of this new effort to direct people who interact with law enforcement to the appropriate services. The MCRC is overseen by the county’s Community Services Board (CSB) and the goal it to triage what is causing the need for officer intervention and whether the person in custody needs to be in a hospital, a mental health care facility or should be taken to jail. There is still widespread stigma surrounding mental health issues and substance abuse. Too often the reluctance to acknowledge a problem leads to a lack of appropriate treatment and subsequent interaction with law enforcement. Laura Yager talked about a new program in Fairfax County called the Turning Point Program which addresses the specific needs of young people from 16 to 25 who experience a first episode of psychosis. The program helps them to create a treatment plan that keeps them in school, in their homes or in supported housing, and in their chosen community.
Mental Health First Aid Training is part of both Diversion First and the Turning Point Program’s agenda in raising awareness about how to recognize the signs that someone needs mental health services. Just like CPR training or regular first aid training, Mental Health First Aid Training is designed to help with evaluation skills and knowing the appropriate steps to take in seeking assistance for someone who is experiencing difficulties.
While Fairfax County does not have a Mental Health Docket, the Diversion First Program is working to train administrative staff in the courts, and magistrates as well, to recognize when mental health issues, addiction issues or intellectual disability issues are a factor in why defendants are coming before the court. Working at the pre-trial level, the CSB and Court Services Staff are evaluating cases early in the morning before defendants are brought before a judge. The goal of Diversion First is to put people in treatment programs where it is appropriate and not in jails where they become part of an endless cycle in and out of incarceration because the real issues that put them there are never addressed or resolved.