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Forsyth County (NC) Stepping Up to Reduce Population of Mentally Ill in Jail

July 11, 2016

Winston-Salem Journal

By Arika Herron

An effort to reduce the population of mentally ill in the Forsyth County Detention Center is expected to move forward tonight when the Forsyth County commissioners vote to approve grant applications to support the first two years of the project.

Ronda Tatum, assistant county manager, said the county is seeking nearly $150,000 in community grants to support the Stepping Up Initiative. Based on a national movement with the same name, the project will seek to connect mentally ill inmates with support services and treatment post-incarceration in an effort to reduce recidivism among those individuals.

In Forsyth County, the Stepping Up Initiative will start with a pilot project targeting the jail’s female inmates. Tatum said that population was identified as a manageable place to start because of its relatively small size — no more than 100 at any one time — and many common issues.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” Tatum said. “We needed to narrow down the focus.”

Should the program prove successful, the hope is to eventually be able to expand it to male inmates, too.

A survey of the jail’s female population found that the majority are white, single and unemployed. Many of them have chronic mental illness issues, substance abuse problems, have been previously victimized, and have past experiences with hospitalization or rehab. The project will target women with co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse issues.

Maj. Robert Slater, detention bureau commander, said the jail has a portion of its population who are regular offenders, cycling out of the jail multiple times a month, or even a week. He said the corrections staff tries to address the needs of its inmates but is not always equipped to deal with mental illness.

“Over time, it’s just become … that’s what the jail deals with,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like we’re ill-equipped to deal with it, but we have to deal with the hand we’ve been dealt.”

Slater said a better system to support people after they leave jail could help reduce recidivism among the mentally ill.

“After they walk out of the jail, there’s not a lot of after-care out there to get them the resources to stay on their medication and regularly see a doctor,” he said. “It starts the vicious cycle all over again.”

Program participants will receive individualized re-entry plans addressing their specific needs, like housing, medical care, mental health or substance abuse treatment, educational opportunities and employment. What exactly that looks like will depend on the person, Tatum said.

“It’s not a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” she said. “When they’ve done whatever time it is and they’re getting ready to be released … we would prioritize with the offender what supports they need. “

Tatum said there are still a lot of details to be worked out and connections between agencies to be made. The grant applications up for a vote today are seeking funding that would allow the county to hire a full-time coordinator for the project and a part-time support specialist, as well as cover programming, planning and operating costs for the first two years. The county is seeking a $30,000 grant from the Women’s Fund, a $40,000 community grant from the Winston-Salem Foundation and a $75,000 poor and needy grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. It has already begun the pre-application process for each of the three grants, which have application deadlines in August.

The project will also leverage $50,000 in county funding through an agreement with Cardinal Innovations, which recently acquired CenterPoint Human Services.

The program will require the mental health community, social service providers, law enforcement and the judicial system to all work together. Chief District Judge Lisa Menefee, a member of the Stepping Up Initiative steering committee, said the effort will take communitywide support.

“It takes a community working together to make something like this happen,” Menefee said. “It means everybody takes responsibility.”

The Stepping Up Initiative has been supported by the National Association of Counties, of which Forsyth County is a member. Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt has championed the initiative locally and praised the progress at a briefing session June 30.

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