Client progress is the main topic of staff meetings at Blacksburg’s Bridge Program, one of SAMHSA’s successful jail diversion grantees. The program helps individuals with mental illnesses move from the justice system into treatment. Staff include (from left to right): Joseph Yost, Heather Custer, Kelly Light, and R. Patrick Halpern.
From Jail to Treatment: Blacksburg’s Bridge Program Promotes Recovery
By Rebecca A. Clay
Ask Joseph R. Yost, M.A., how well the jail diversion program he coordinates is going, and he shares the story of a participant with PTSD, no home, and felony charges for forging and writing bad checks. With a referral to the New River Valley Bridge Program Mr. Yost manages, she soon found herself out of jail, in an apartment, and in treatment.
The SAMHSA-funded Bridge Program at the Mental Health Association of the New River Valley (MHANRV) in Blacksburg, VA, diverts people with serious mental illnesses or co-occurring substance abuse disorders from the criminal justice system to the treatment system. The program intervenes after people have been booked, but before they go to trial.
“More and more persons with mental illness are ending up in jails or prisons rather than receiving the community care they need to help them on their road to recovery,” explained MHANRV Executive Director and Bridge Program Director R. Patrick Halpern.
Almost a decade ago, the community came together with SAMHSA funding to create a crisis intervention team of specially trained police officers who can respond appropriately to people with mental illness. In 2005, the community received a grant from SAMHSA’s Targeted Capacity Expansion Grants for Jail Diversion Programs, and the Bridge Program was born.
Spanning several jurisdictions in this rural, mountainous area, the Bridge Program kicks into gear just hours after an individual’s arrest.
New inmates get an initial mental health screening at the Montgomery County Jail or New River Valley Regional Jail. At the initial court appearance, a judge decides whether it’s safe or appropriate to divert an individual to the Bridge Program.
If so, clients and Bridge Team staff and a public behavioral health provider, New River Valley Community Services, work together to create individualized treatment plans, solve problems like homelessness or missing benefits, and enroll participants in education and recovery groups. A criminal justice liaison keeps the court up to date on the progress of individual clients.
Making such programs work requires collaboration among a wide range of partners, said Victoria Cochran, J.D., who helped start the jail diversion program in New River Valley.
Mental health and substance abuse treatment providers, corrections and pretrial personnel, representatives from the Department of Social Services and the Department of Rehabilitation Services, housing specialists, antipoverty activists, and others are now working together to help the individuals they all serve.
Ms. Cochran herself has moved on to become the State Coordinator for Criminal Justice and Mental Health Initiatives. “Now I’m boundary-spanning at the state level,” she said. Her goal is to spread jail diversion programs across Virginia.
Once SAMHSA’s funding ends this summer, the state will step in to support the program. That is good news to SAMHSA Project Officer David Morrissette, Ph.D., L.C.S.W.
“We really maximized the value of our grant,” he said, noting that 75 percent of SAMHSA’s first 20 jail diversion grantee programs are proving to be sustainable. “In this case, we gave a grant to one community, and it has affected the entire state of Virginia.”
Read more information about the New River Valley Bridge Program. Find out more about SAMHSA’s grant programs.
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Treatment in Lieu of Jail: Diversion Succeeds
Aerial view of Blacksburg, VA. Photo by Ivan Morozov