Keeping Mental Health Care in the Community and Out of Jail

January 16, 2020

Eight years ago, roughly 100 active Wyandot Center clients were arrested each month. Today, that number has been cut in half. The reason for that reduction? Community partnerships.

In 2012, Wyandot Behavioral Health Network brought together a number of justice system leaders to tackle a complex problem: How can we work together to make sure fewer people with mental illness end up in jail, prison, or the court system? Nationwide, jails and prisons have become the largest institutions providing psychiatric care. Our community was determined to do its part to stop that trend.

But the solution was complicated. It required several large institutions--Wyandot BHN, District and Municipal Courts, the Police Department, Sheriff's Office, Jail, and Community Corrections--to forge new lines of communication and work together as one community. 

A year later, Wyandot created two positions to help with that coordination: a CIT co-responder and a jail liaison. The co-responder would accompany police on mental health related calls, including disturbances, excessive use of 911, and domestic conflicts. The jail liaison was hired to make sure Wyandot Center clients did not get lost in system once they were arrested.

With those positions, Wyandot Center’s Justice Involved Support Team (JIST) was born. In the years since, the team has grown to eight full-time positions with a presence in all facets of the Wyandotte County law enforcement and judicial system, as well as Osawatomie State Hospital and Kansas prisons.

Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Fewell, Wyandotte County Jail Warden, said the relationship has helped enhance the “continuity of care” for those who return to the community after their incarceration. “Wyandot Behavioral Health is a tremendous partner for those youth, adults, and elderly requiring assistance from our facility,” Fewell said.

Relationships with the jail staff and other justice systems help build the infrastructure that provides that continuity of care that helps people with mental illness recover.

“When our clients have legal issues, it prevents them from recovery,” said JIST Manager, Jeffrey Robinson. “It can block them from housing. It can block them from obtaining benefits or employment. And when these things happen it can increase people’s mental health symptoms, that feeling of despair, that hopelessness. By helping resolve these legal issues, we foster independence and recovery.”

Consider one significant example of how the JIST positions have helped reduce arrests. Before JIST, Wyandot Center had no way to track arrest records of existing clients, who could easily rack up thousands of dollars of fines and compromise their recovery. Today, after several years of strengthening relationships with the justice system, Wyandot Center can cross-check arrest records for its clients and identify a problem before it gets out of hand.

“It took us two years to break down the silos and talk to everybody,” Robinson said. “Now that we’re talking, and working together, we can get down to the business of helping our clients get on a path to recovery and stay out of jail.”