Mental health courts offer alternative path to recovery

By Phyllis Hanlon
May 29th, 2019

In 2007, Judge Kathleen Coffey sought a way to help those with mental health disorders who were facing imprisonment. Mental Health Court offers an alternative path to recovery while avoiding incarceration.

Joan Taglieri, senior director of clinical operations for the Boston Medical Center Department of Psychiatry, explained that the Mental Health Court is a specialized diversionary court session that facilitates access to intensive social services and mental health treatment to assist participants in maintaining stability, achieving recovery, and avoiding incarceration.

This special court session is a collaborative effort within the courts between the probation department, the Suffolk County district attorney’s office, defense attorneys and clinical representation, which is provided by Boston Medical Center.

According to Taglieri, a clinician (i.e., mental health counselor, clinical social worker or psychologist) is assigned to each session and has specific roles to fulfill. For example, clinicians evaluate those newly referred to the program to determine if they meet eligibility criteria and current treatment needs and to orient the client to the program.

Clinicians also perform outreach to participants’ current and past providers to collaborate on treatment planning, Taglieri added.

They develop plans that address unmet behavioral needs, make referrals to outpatient mental health and substance use disorder services, and assist with applications for MassHealth and other social services.

During the mental health session, clinicians verify treatment compliance with outside providers, offer clinical updates, and provide as-needed support and care coordination to participants between court appearances, said Taglieri.

“[They also] communicate regularly with the session’s probation officer, defense attorneys and the assistant district attorney.”

Taglieri said that Mental Health Court offers clinical, social, and legal benefits to its participants. Clients are connected with necessary community services, which might include medication management assistance, therapeutic supports, substance use disorder treatment, psychoeducation, housing support, connection to community and state resources, based on client needs.

Client criminal cases are generally resolved in a favorable manner through participation in Mental Health Court.

“Once a criminal case is entered into the Mental Health Court, it is removed from the general trial track all together and handled by an ADA and probation officer specifically trained in issues related to mental health,” Taglieri said.

Involvement in Mental Health Court sessions ensures that a client will be connected with appropriate community resources and treatment protocol specific to the needs of that person, according to Taglieri.

“Based on just being connected with treatment, that has certainly worked to reduce hospitalization, homelessness, and better management of long-term major mental illness,” she said.

Also, connecting individuals with state services, such as the Department of Mental Health (DMH), Mass Rehab or MassHealth, has been shown to set individuals up for success in the long term.

Linking individuals with the appropriate medication management has the same positive result.

The success of the program can be measured by FY 2018 figures; 236 clients were served between three Mental Health Court sessions, with 59 graduates successfully completing the program and meeting the terms of their probation.

A family in southeastern Massachusetts is among those success stories. The parents cited Mental Health Court as a “valuable asset” that understands incarceration is not beneficial for individuals with mental health issues. While non-violent crimes bring individuals into the Mental Health Court system, they don’t typically result in jail time. The family noted, “…without the Mental Health Court, chances of recovery are a lot slimmer.”

The family reported that after participation in the Mental Health Court program for approximately five years, their child is now working and making good progress. They emphasized that individuals with mental illness require a good support system; Mental Health Court provides “…a tremendous amount of positive reinforcement…” and resources necessary for recovery.

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