ABJ: Stow’s mental health court seeks to change lives, not punish

December 30, 2014

by Paula Schleis | Beacon Journal staff writer
Reprinted from the Akron Beacon Journal and Ohio.com December 26, 2014

STOW: Mark can remember lifting the toy gun off a wall display in his home after two Tallmadge police officers arrived in answer to his 9-1-1 hang-up call.

He just can’t tell you why he reached for it, any more than he can explain why he called police to begin with.

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” said Mark, who suffers from panic attacks and had been drinking a lot that day. “They drew down on me and told me to drop it, and I did.”

What might have been his last day turned out to be the first day of a new life.

Charged with aggravated menacing, Mark exchanged a possible six-month jail sentence for a two-year commitment to STRIDE: Successful Treatment Results in Developing Excellence.

The program, at Stow Municipal Court, helps those who suffer from mental illnesses make healthy changes that will improve their lives and keep them out of the criminal justice system.

Judge Lisa Coates launched her “mental health court” in 2009 after seeing two men make repeated trips to her courtroom for such misdemeanors as petty theft or disturbing the peace.

“They were doing it because they couldn’t stay on their meds, so I started doing a mini mental health court for them,” Coates said.

In 2009, she started visiting other courts across the state after deciding to formalize the program. Akron already was doing something similar, but she ended up modeling her own court after Columbiana County, where Judge Carol Robb became her mentor.

STRIDE is no cake walk. Coates said more than half of the candidates opt for jail.

Participants are required to visit the judge, their probation officer and a Community Support Services case worker weekly, and see a psychiatrist at least once a month.

That’s no small commitment for people who have full-time jobs, are going to school or are caring for children.

“It’s not easy, and some people don’t want to put in the work,” Coates said. “I don’t hide it up front. It’s not even a diversion program. It’s not even like you’re going to get the charge dismissed at the end. I want you to do this because you want to be better.”

The Stow court serves 16 communities in northeast Summit County and handles an average of 20,000 cases a year.

The mental health court is a small fraction of those. To date, 42 people have entered the program, with 13 graduating and 12 currently enrolled. The remainder quit part way through, Coates said.

Those who graduate get their court costs, fines and probation fees waived.

But Mark held himself up as an example of how the real reward is far greater than money.

He stopped drinking and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly. He takes medication for his anxiety disorder and said he hasn’t experienced a panic attack in nearly a year.

“It saved my life,” he said. “I was at the point where I needed help and I needed to be forced. I wouldn’t have done it on my own.”

He admits he was initially skeptical of the program and the agenda behind it.

“Coming into this program, you think they’re going to try to trick you, or it’s because you have to be punished, but it’s absolutely not like that,” Mark said. “I feel like they all care. I could have been done with my jail sentence by now, but this is worth it because I would have went right back to where I was: not getting ahead.”

Kristine Dondrea is the Community Support Services case manager assigned to all of the county’s mental health court clients. Akron started its court in 2001; Barberton’s program is a year old.

Dondrea helps them find housing if they need it, or teaches them how to manage their money. She might need to show someone how to use the bus so they can get to their appointments, or she checks in to make sure they are taking their medication.

“All the judges are different in how they handle their own court. Something different that Judge Coates does is she has them do journals,” Dondrea said. “Every week they write about how they are feeling.”

Sometimes those writings help the STRIDE team identify problems that need to be addressed, she said.

Coates also stresses socialization. All STRIDE participants see her at the same time each week so they have the opportunity to meet and support each other.

“In the community, a lot of mental health people, they have that stigma and they feel it. But when they are here, they can see how other people are doing,” Dondrea said.

There is also an annual summer picnic on the courthouse grounds and an annual Christmas party. Graduation ceremonies are held, with past graduates often attending to show support for those leaving the program.

And once a year, they all volunteer for a local charity. This month, Coates, her professional team and several participants spent an afternoon at OPEN M, packing food for clients of the mission, decorating a Christmas tree and filling boxes with school supplies.

“There are so many people that give support to mental health services, so I tell them, ‘I want you guys to give back. I want you to see there are other people struggling, probably more than you guys,’ ” Coates said. “It’s good for them to get away from that ‘woe is me.’ It’s about living a purpose-driven life.”

Probation Officer Amy Anderson, who has been with the Stow program since it started, said she has not seen a STRIDE graduate return to the courtroom — unless they’ve come back to show off pictures of new children or grandchildren or share news about a job.

“They are on a different path now, so they don’t repeat those ways,” she said. “With mental health, you have to stay on a routine, and in two years you can get everything in place.”

To be eligible for STRIDE, the candidate must live in Summit County and must be charged with a misdemeanor that
carries a potential jail sentence, although some crimes, such as violent offenses against children and OVIs, don’t

The candidate must be diagnosed with a major mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, and that illness must be a contributing factor in the crime.

“If you stole something but you were taking your meds, you’re probably not eligible. A personality disorder is not enough,” Coates said. “It has to be something that treatment and medication can help.”

Dr. Heather Queen-Williams, a psychiatrist employed by Community Support Services to work with all three courts in the county, said if a person’s crime can be tied to not being on the proper medication, it’s only fair to give them the opportunity to set things right.

“When people get back on their medication, they’re a different person. When that’s the case,” she said, “they should get the chance to be stabilized to stop the behavior that lands them in court.”

Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or pschleis@thebeaconjournal.com.

Read this article at Ohio.com here.