Mental Health Diversion Program Showing Success in Sarpy County 2/19/15 02/18/15 11:21:35 PM
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Dean Loftus and Martha Heydenreich collaborate, as they have for years, on continuing to improve the Mental Health Diversion program.
Mental Health Diversion Program
Showing Success in Sarpy County
By Dennis Friend
The Daily Record
The kid was in trouble. He was accused of felony theft, of stealing from his employer. That’s when he became part of the Sarpy County Mental Health Diversion program.
“He was one of our first cases,” according to Dean Loftus, diversion officer and mental health diversion manager. Loftus learned the young man had been treated for mental health issues before this new encounter with the criminal justice system.
The young man was routed into the diversion program, evaluated and diagnosed, Loftus said.
“He’s been clean and sober. He’s been on the program about a year with no violation. He sees a psychologist every week. No issues. In fact, he’s been successful and has held a job since his first month, and he’s been promoted once,” Loftus said.
Sarpy County Attorney
The diversion program is the brainchild of Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov, who said many people who come through the courts are mentally ill and are in need of treatment, not incarceration.
“It’s been an interest of mine for a long time,” Polikov said. After more than two decades in law enforcement and the criminal justice system, Polikov noted a strong connection between crime and mental issues: “people in crisis.”
Diverting mentally ill individuals who commit low-level crimes out of jails and into appropriate treatment programs might not only save money and court time, Polikov thought, but also might help keep those individuals from winding up with criminal convictions and bigger problems in the future.
Loftus has been in charge of the mental health diversion program since its start. Previously, he worked as adult diversion officer for seven years.
“Any case has to be referred by a prosecutor,” Loftus said. He will conduct a one-hour interview, making it clear it is a voluntary program and also making the mental health component clear.
“Prosecutors have leeway to refer, depending on the crime. Typically, we’ll see shoplifting cases. Some people are off their meds, bipolar or depressed. They’ll get a psychiatric evaluation,” Loftus said.
It’s not an easy fix, because the mental-health issue has to be diagnosable. In addition, drugs or alcohol often are involved, since substance abuse often goes hand-in-hand with psychological issues.
Both Loftus and Polikov say the program is not a way for criminals to circumvent the criminal justice system. While Loftus describes it as “compassion and empathy,” participation requires diagnosis and referral and a participant may be required to go to therapy, take medication or address any addiction issues.
“So far, we’re seeing a good success rate,” Loftus said. The goal in this program is for an individual to do the best he or she can – to be “on their meds, not using drugs or alcohol, keeping their appointments. Typically, the participant buys in pretty well and follows the program.”
If someone cannot or will not follow the rules, withdraws from the program or violates a provision, that person goes back into the court system. Of the 60 people referred to the program in the past year, Loftus said 20 have completed the program successfully, three have been redirected for violations or for withdrawing, and the rest are “in progress.”
Martha Heydenreich, Sarpy County senior diversion officer, has worked in the diversion office for nearly 20 years and has worked with Loftus from the beginning.
“I think Dean’s done a great job putting the mental health division together. It’s something that has been needed for a long time,” she said.
Polikov said the program has “great support from everyone, from veteran’s groups to political groups,” including the public defender’s office, since it offers a way to connect people who have committed nonviolent crimes to the services they may need.
Loftus pointed out that the program not only offers a human benefit, but also provides savings and benefits to the county and the criminal justice system. For instance, “incarceration involves substantial tax dollars and incarceration means they may not get help. Jail can exacerbate mental illness. We try to get them the help they need.”
Not everyone accused of a crime is mentally ill and not all mentally ill people commit crimes, but a mental illness can intersect with public safety needs, meaning someone in the throes of a mental-health crisis can wind up in jail – for instance, by hurting himself or others.
“We found about 40 percent of those in the diversion program had mental health issues before we started building our program. Mental illness has been on the back burner for years. This approach is much needed in the criminal justice system,” Loftus said. “We are building an exceptional Mental Health Diversion program thanks to the forward and progressive thinking of the county attorney and our county board.”
Now, Loftus said, the Sarpy County Attorney’s office is “in the process of hiring a full-time mental health attorney. Having someone dedicated specifically to mental health cases will help streamline referrals to Mental Health Diversion.”
In Polikov’s opinion, the diversion program is “a positive,” a program allowing services to address alcoholism, “a whole array of addictions,” and providing “someone to talk to” on a pre-trial, pre-conviction basis.
“It makes so much sense to me to get help for mental-health patients, to get them out of crisis. You help them and their families and you give judges less to do. The court has more time to deal with more serious cases. Our goal is to get a just result. No one wants to prosecute someone with obvious mental health problems. [Instead] they can start the mental health treatment they need,” Polikov said.