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Specialized domestic violence, mental health programs get their start

The Crow Wing County Board approved the use of ARPA funds for internal needs in March 2022, after which the corrections department received authorization to hire two full-time probation agents.

Krista Jones and Tami Lueck speak during County Board meeting
Corrections Manager Krista Jones, left, and Adult Services Supervisor Tami Lueck present Jan. 17, 2023, to the Crow Wing County Board about pilot projects funded by American Rescue Plan Act dollars.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — Pilot projects seeking to address pandemic-era spikes in domestic violence and mental health concerns are off the ground and beginning to see results.

Krista Jones, Crow Wing County corrections manager, updated county commissioners on the two-year projects, which were funded by federal COVID-19 relief dollars acquired through the American Rescue Plan Act. The County Board approved the use of a portion of those funds for internal needs in March 2022, after which the corrections department received authorization to hire two full-time probation agents focused on the work.

“These were two areas, as you recall, that we identified that were highly impacted and we saw an increase in cases as a result of COVID,” Jones said during the Jan. 17 committee of the whole meeting.

Domestic violence

Assigning a domestic violence-specific caseload with the intent of early intervention and improving outcomes is new for Crow Wing County. The first few months were spent developing policies and procedures while also meeting with other stakeholders in the system, including the county attorney’s office, judges, public defenders and the Relationship Safety Alliance, formerly known as the Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center.

These conversations identified gaps in the system, Jones said, while helping to establish a common understanding of a workflow to allow the agent to meet with the accused before arraignment to assess their risk of reoffending.

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“We felt that this was really important because that would give the court the information they need to determine whether or not they meet criteria and place them on this caseload,” Jones said.

A total of 19 people accused of intimate partner domestic violence were accepted to the pretrial supervision program as of the end of 2022, with four others added since. Jones said in the five months since beginning to work with clients, the department is already seeing positive impacts, although she noted it’s too early to begin drawing conclusions.

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Of those participating in the program, none have missed their follow-up court appearances. Through early and regular contact with the clients, Jones said the department expedited access to services, including chemical use assessments and domestic violence counseling. And in all of the cases, Jones said the agent made contact with the victim to help ensure they also received necessary services.

“Information increases their safety as well as has an impact on those kids in the home that are witnessing and experiencing domestic violence,” Jones said. “So having that family involved with those services is essential.

“This was something that was not happening prior to the pretrial program being implemented because there was nobody supervising or watching those clients that were released from jail and back out into the community. Oftentimes, they made contact with that victim again and those children are being exposed to that continued violence. And we all see that impact.”

Commissioner Steve Barrows asked whether the work had an impact on preventing out-of-home placements of children. Jones said it’s likely early intervention with the whole family will prevent more serious outcomes later.

Commissioner Paul Koering asked whether it was common for court appearances to be missed. Jones said although she did not have exact figures, she estimated people don’t show up at least half of the time.

Commissioner Steve Barrows speaks during County Board meeting
Commissioner Steve Barrows discusses his views on mental health services provided by the state of Minnesota during the Jan. 17, 2023, Crow Wing County committee of the whole meeting.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“What we’ve seen is those cases drag out so long because they aren’t appearing in court. It’s really hard to move that case forward if the client isn’t showing up for their next court appearance,” she said. “So by ensuring that appearance, we’re able to resolve these cases much quicker and get them the services they need in order to move that case forward and hopefully make significant behavior change.”

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Mental health

A similar project meant to focus on interventions for people with severe and persistent mental illness involved in the criminal justice system took longer to get started but is also underway. Jones explained an agent hired in May 2022 resigned in October, so the replacement hire did not begin working with clients until November.

A total of 11 clients were determined eligible for the specialized mental health program as of the end of the year, with that number rising to 13 by the Jan. 17 meeting.

“Because of the intensity and high needs of this severe and persistent mental illness population, it’s extremely time-consuming to work with this population, so we kept that caseload at 25,” Jones said. “Knowing the time it takes to do good work with this population and connect them to services, build those relationships, gain that trust — it’s essential to working with this population.”

Jones said when these clients are part of a probation agent’s traditional caseload of 60-80 clients, their mental health needs often are not met, even when the agent is able to spend extra dedicated time. The approach to these clients by a specialized mental health agent looks different, she said.

“We don’t want to see them go to jail. We want to connect them to services and meet their needs in the way that they need to be met,” Jones said.

According to the report, actions taken by the specialized agent include scheduling therapy appointments, helping clients access residential treatment or a group home, assisting with modifying child support payments or establishing payment plans for court fines and numerous after-hours phone calls to help stabilize spiraling clients.

With the program underway, Jones said she’s looking forward to expanding it further and collaborating with the adult mental health team in Community Services.

Barrows said he believed the two programs represented a good investment of the relief dollars, despite his disappointment with the state’s approach to mental health care.

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“I’m still struggling with the state of Minnesota not … participating in what I see is their role,” Barrows said. “ … I feel like this is a backdoor way of them getting the counties to take on the responsibility of mental health particularly. When they walked away from it some years ago, this is the result.”

Jones said the biggest challenge is the lack of a robust system able to meet the needs.

“We don’t have the infrastructure, the services in the community the way we need to, to place people when they need to be,” she said. “Even with our local providers, they’re struggling with staffing. And I think that’s one of the biggest challenges, not only with this caseload, but traditional agents as well. It’s just the lack of services.”

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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