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School of Social Work partners with local efforts to address mental health and the criminal justice system

Posted Oct. 16, 2017
Reported by: Claire Jordan (ABJ '18),

police car

For many people with mental health issues, involvement with the criminal justice system means a never-ending cycle of release and recidivism. Local organizations from Athens-Clarke County, including the School of Social Work, are joining national efforts to step in for reform.

According to the Athens Clarke County Justice Planning Council, 38 percent of individuals in the local criminal justice system have a behavioral health disorder. Of these individuals, over half return to the system within a year of their release. The U.S. Department of Justice awarded the Athens-Clarke County Police Department a $300,000 grant to implement programs that ultimately reduce the rate of individuals with mental health issues cycling through the local justice system.

Faculty with the UGA School of Social Work are collaborating with the department and other local efforts to help get one of these programs off the ground—the co-responder initiative. The co-responder initiative will allow licensed clinical professionals to assist law enforcement officers on calls in which mental illness is involved.

Part-time Instructor Katherine “Katie” Crawford (PhD ’16) is using her expertise to evaluate its effectiveness. Her doctoral dissertation focused in part on trauma-informed care in social service systems. She has experience working with individuals to find alternatives to incarceration, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, and advocated for them within the court system. Crawford’s evaluation will measure potential issues with implementation and success in overcoming barriers. The School of Social Work is one of several partners, including Advantage Behavioral Health Systems, the University of Georgia’s J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development and the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office.

In addition to the co-responder initiative, the ACCPD will begin Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training for local officials. MHFA training is a course that teaches how to properly identify, understand and respond to situations involving mental illness and substance abuse. Both the MHFA training and co-responder programs intend to respond to calls with self-help resources rather than legal action. Institutions like the Denver Police Department implemented similar programs in April of 2016 that have seen impressive success. The Mental Health Center of Denver reported that 97 percent of calls involving co-respondents—more than 840 cases-- avoided legal action. The potential offenders received assistance and care options instead.

 “It is our hope to not only reduce costs, but also decrease the number of jail and emergency room admissions for individuals with mental health disorders and/or co-occurring addictive disease,” said Crawford, “and to connect them with appropriate services and care within the community that will lead to more effective treatment outcomes.”