Connecticut Helps Probationers with Mental Illness Succeed
By Laura Usher, NAMI CIT Program Manager
When probation officer Alex Diaz had an individual he was supervising come to his office in crisis, he knew what to do. Diaz says, "He came in and said he wasn't feeling well, wasn't feeling safe." Diaz was worried he would hurt himself, so he accompanied this client to the ER. When the client wouldn't talk to ER staff, the hospital decided to discharge him. Diaz stood up for his client and asked to speak to the psych nurse. He shared what his client had told him and was able to call a colleague at the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) for help. Finally, his client was admitted and able to stabilize.
Without Diaz's quick thinking and connections, it's likely his client would not have gotten the help he urgently needed. Diaz was so well-equipped to deal with this crisis because he was part of Connecticut's Mental Health Probation Unit which provides specialized training and support to probation officers in assisting clients with mental illness. Officers took crisis intervention team (CIT) training through the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement (CABLE), where they learned recognize mental illness, how to talk to someone in a crisis, and how to help clients connect with mental health services.
More than providing information, the training brought about an attitude change. Diaz says the training taught him that supervision "is not just about compliance with the conditions of probation, but improvement in quality of life."
Brian Coco, Chief Probation Officer in New Britain, CT and former head of the agency's mental health programs says, "There's more of an effort to understand each person, each illness, and keep the person in the community. If we can reengage someone back in treatment everyone is better off – the Department of Correction, the taxpayer and the client." The officers work closely with community mental health agencies where they refer clients for treatment, and they keep close tabs on whether their clients are making it to appointments.
Some clients are participating in the state's Supervised Diversionary program, which allows their records to be expunged if they successfully complete a mental health treatment mental. NAMI Connecticut, the Court Support Services Division and CABLE developed a three day collaborative training model called "Mental Health, Yours, Mine and Ours" for probation officers who were selected to manage clients as part of the Supervised Diversionary Program. The officers may also attend the 40 hour CIT program if they wish.
The diversion program is a success. Clients enrolled in the program have a high rate of success: sticking to treatment plans and avoid re-arrests.
For individuals not participating in the diversion program, the specialized probation officer helps them transition back into the community and stick to a treatment plan that will keep them out jail. Coco says mental health clients don't face different consequences for violating the conditions of probation, but the officer has some leeway in deciding when to send someone back to jail. Officers also have a lot more tools to help clients stay within the conditions of their probation.
Diaz says, "I had a client who would talk really loud. It was part of her cognitive symptoms. The other officers would walk by to check in on me, but it was fine. I knew the difference between symptoms and someone aggressive or non-compliant." If a person did start to get upset, CIT training gave Diaz the skills to help the person calm down, rather than escalate out of control.
Diaz tracked his clients' outcomes and 95% successfully met the conditions of probation. Research backs up his observations: an evaluation of the program shows that clients in the Mental Health Probation Unit have a lower re-arrest rate than other probationers. Diaz credits their success in part to the fact that their agency, CSSD, works closely with DMHAS and the Department of Correction. The agencies meet monthly to talk about difficult cases, and brainstorm about policy changes that could help support their clients. Those monthly meetings also mean that the officers know who to call for help when a client is in crisis or needs extra support.
Coco says another important way that the officers get support is through regular meetings with other officers who have received the training around the state. Sometimes there is only one officer managing the specialized mental health cases in an office, so the people he works with day-to-day may not understand mental illness. Coco says, "It's very easy for [untrained officers] to see how you should violate someone" for symptoms of mental illness.
To learn more: Chief Probation Officer Thomas Canny oversees both the Supervised Diversionary and Mental Health Probation Units. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Louise Pyers, NAMI Connecticut's Criminal Justice Project Director may be reached at email@example.com.