$10 million mental health plan proposed

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Oct. 9, 2016 at 11:42 p.m.
Updated Oct. 10, 2016 at 6 a.m.

People listen during the Gulf Bend Community Collaborative meeting on Oct. 6. ANA RAMIREZ/ARAMIREZ@VICAD.COM.

People listen during the Gulf Bend Community Collaborative meeting on Oct. 6. ANA RAMIREZ/ARAMIREZ@VICAD.COM.   Ana Ramirez for The Victoria Advocate

Various community leaders hope an about $10 million plan that calls for deputies to divert the mentally ill from jail will serve as a model for other rural counties in the state.

The leaders have been meeting for months at the Gulf Bend Center, a mental health authority that serves the seven-county region.

They hope to refine the plan by the end of October and present it to legislators before they go into session in mid-January.

They want the state to fund the plan.

Right now, inmates lose access to benefits, such as Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security income, while in jail, and the county where they are jailed becomes responsible for paying for their treatment.

Experts say because of this benefit loss, the mentally ill who are released are more likely to use illegal drugs, landing them back behind bars.

The leaders hope to make the case that the plan will not only produce better outcomes for the mentally ill but be more cost-effective.

The plans calls for 14 mental health deputies, 10 mental health case workers and two supervisors to provide 24-7 coverage of the seven-county region 365 days a year.

They will work out of Gulf Bend, located at 6502 Nursery Drive, which will also provide them with office supplies.

The deputies will be Victoria County Sheriff's Office employees but will be dispatched by Gulf Bend.

It's not clear now how the deputies will be allocated, but Victoria Police Chief J.J. Craig said a majority may need to remain in Victoria because it is the top mental health care consumer in the Crossroads.

Recently, his officers safely de-escalated two mental health-related calls, he said. One involved an individual who had barricaded himself inside his home. The other involved an individual who brandished a knife, he said.

Phase II of the plan allows the counties served to determine where some of the deputies are based. Leo Rios, who has led most of the meetings, said few counties have expressed a desire to do that. Until recently, Rios served as the Victoria County Jail administrator.

Craig also said that while he was "tremendously supportive" of the plan, he needed more clarification on what "divert" means in this plan.

"The term 'divert' can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and I'm of the belief that there are individuals that do not need to be in a jail environment who are suffering from a mental health crisis, but when I hear 'divert,' I think, at least from a police department perspective, 'Divert to where? Where am I diverting this individual?'" he asked.

Craig said Longbeach, Calif., where he used to work, had a program similar to the one this plan implements, but the officers there had a hospital where they could divert the mentally ill.

The only inpatient mental health treatment available in the Crossroads is offered by DeTar, and it accepts those 55 or older.

At last check, Texas' mental health hospitals were between 90 and 94 percent occupied.

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said at a recent meeting that many need to be either renovated or replaced, which may cost $2 billion.

Neither Kolkhorst nor State Rep. Geanie Morrison could be reached Friday to give feedback on the proposed plan.

The Crossroads community leaders who came together Thursday to review the plan offered some revisions.

Nora Brosig-Kucera suggested at least one of the 10 case workers specialize in drug addiction.

As Victoria County's pre-trial services coordinator, Brosig-Kucera often visits the jail, where she sees some inmates appear to be in a drug-induced psychosis.

Right now, the plan requires mental health deputies to have at least one year of experience in patrol or court operations, pass the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement's 40-hour mental health course and complete a crisis negotiation course within a year of being assigned to the unit.

Victoria College and Gulf Bend will provide them with continuing education, Rios said.

Mental health case workers, meanwhile, must have a minimum of a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university in social, behavioral or human services and must meet the legal requirements of a qualified mental health professional.

Gulf Bend already has caseworkers, although Executive Director Jeff Tunnell could not say how many Friday because the staff members who knew were out of the office. Gulf Bend also has a five-member mobile crisis outreach team, which would continue to operate and support the mental health deputies and case workers should the plan be funded.

Currently, one person from the mobile crisis outreach team is reachable 24-7 by calling a hotline. He or she is required by the state to respond to a crisis anywhere in the seven-county area within an hour.

In 2015, Gulf Bend received about $4.2 million from the state. A state spokesperson did not respond Friday to a request for the most recent amount received by Gulf Bend.

Those in charge of this effort also want to set up televideo conferencing equipment in local jails that the unit can use. They estimate that will cost about $120,000.

Years ago, Gulf Bend provided the jails with televideo conferencing equipment to connect inmates with mental health professionals, some of whom could report back to the court on whether they were competent to stand trial on criminal charges.

Gulf Bend would continue to use the existing equipment if this plan is funded by the state. Although there are other ways to communicate with iPhones and applications like FaceTime and Skype, privacy is a concern, Tunnell said.

Some of the group's members include Victoria County Court-at-law 1 Judge Daniel Gilliam, Victoria County Commissioner Gary Burns and Victoria Architect Rawley McCoy. There were also representatives from Victoria's Veterans Service Center, Citizens Medical Center, DeTar and Billy T. Cattan Recovery Outreach who had input on the plan. They envision the mental health deputies and case workers will foster relationships with the mentally ill people they oversee and connect them with resources so they do not have a crisis and need hospitalization or get arrested.

"All of that really is not that much money when you consider the region and the number of people who are going to be served," Rios said about the $10 million price tag.


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