Will support law enforcement calls; ‘it’s long overdue’

SONOMA COUNTY – Sonoma County Supervisors last December approved funding for a mobile support team that will assist law enforcement in dealing with mental health and substance abuse crises – an area that is increasingly common and difficult for enforcement to deal with.

The Sonoma County Sherriff’s Department and the Santa Rosa Police Department experience such confrontations up to 15 times per day, according to a county feasibility study, which recommended the creation of  the mobile support team.

The creation of the Behavioral Health Mobile Support Team will “help foster better outcomes for individuals in crisis and their families and provide support for law enforcement personnel confronting extremely difficult situations,” concluded the report.

Sonoma County Health and Human Services will operate the mobile support team through its mental health division, after the board allocated just over $160,000 for its implementation.

Funding for the program lasts through fiscal 2011.

Specially trained and licensed staff from county health will respond to law enforcement requests to provide mental health intervention, once the scene is secured.

[caption id="attachment_27827" align="alignleft" width="108"] Shirlee Zane[/caption]

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who in 2009 proposed the idea to health services and law enforcement, said it would save the county money while improving mental health services.

“This program will support law enforcement, the mentally ill and their families alike, and it’s long overdue,” Ms. Zane said, noting that law enforcement and mental health advocates all supported the program. “It’s one of those issues that is pennywise pound foolish – we’re throwing five people in jail everyday for mental health and substance abuse. What does that cost us?

“It would more than pay for itself,” Ms. Zane added.

The county has some limited acute-care beds where it can send mental health patients and provide some basic services, but the need is greater than the available resources, Ms. Zane said.

“There’s a lot of public support for this and it’s very much needed,” she said. “Getting the best mental health services in this climate is very, very difficult.”

County health officials will budget $300,000 for fiscal 2011-‘12 and fiscal 2012-‘13 for the program, but an additional $250,000 will be needed per year from the county general fund, realignment funds or other sources, according to the summary report.  Total costs for the next two years would be $550,000 per year.

A decision on whether to fully fund the program will be determined at the next county budget hearings in June, according to Sonoma County Health and Human Services Director Rita Scardaci.

The creation of the program could face potential obstacles, including uncertainty and threats from the state to existing or future funding for mental health services, Ms. Scardaci said.

"This service is an important component in a system of community response to those in mental health crises," Ms. Scardaci said. "A gap still exists for this needed service in Sonoma County."

Ms. Zane said the board is “aggressively looking at grant funding” for the program.

Of the projected costs, 75 percent will support staffing and training; the remainder would go toward vehicles, computers, insurance and other equipment.

The mobile support team should be fully implemented by the end of June or early July, said Mike Kennedy, director or mental health services and alcohol and drug services division for the county. Mental health crises typically occur from noon to midnight, and substance abuses calls peak typically around 2:00 a.m., he said.

The creation of the mobile support team stems from the Mental Health Services Act of 2005, which provided increased funding, personnel and other resources to support county mental health programs. In 2008, county health made crisis intervention training available to city law enforcement and the sheriff’s department. So far, 182 officers have been trained, and an additional 70 officers are targeted for training this year.

In 2009, the sheriff’s department and city police had a total of 5,339 contacts with individuals suffering from either mental health or substance abuse crises, with 41 percent mental health and 59 percent of the calls involving substance abuse. Thirty-three percent of total calls resulted in arrest or detention, according to the feasibility study.