RESTORATION CENTER COULD HALT "REVOLVING DOOR" FACING MENTALLY ILL
By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, SEPT. 12, 2017....Looking for an exit from the "revolving door" of people with mental health disorders going back and forth from emergency rooms to the streets or jail, advocates on Tuesday asked lawmakers to help create a "restoration center" in Middlesex County.
The center would be a facility that provides treatment, including detox, and beds, offering police a place to bring those suffering from mental illness, according to June Binney, director of criminal justice diversion at the National Alliance on Mental Illness Massachusetts.
Emergency rooms and correctional facilities are places that can exacerbate mental illnesses, according to the organization.
For Watertown resident Doris Webb, such a facility would be a welcome alternative to the system her son Glenn faced, struggling with bipolar disorder and substance abuse, getting into trouble and getting locked up before he died in 2008.
"I know that it will take time and a lot of money but an awful lot of money from Massachusetts was spent on Glenn being in jails all over the state," Webb told the Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery on Tuesday.
"The money that Massachusetts spent – we're just looking to spend that money in more productive and positive ways," Rep. Denise Garlick, a Needham Democrat and the House chairwoman of the committee, responded.
Advocates testified in favor of legislation (S 1091) that was filed by the late Sen. Kenneth Donnelly that would task a commission with developing a three-year plan to build a restoration center in Middlesex County. The bill has support from Sen. Cindy Friedman, Donnelly's former aide who was elected to the Senate this summer, and Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian.
"The main thrust behind the idea is to divert people from the criminal justice system, even better to divert them pre-arrest," Koutoujian told the News Service. He said, "It's to divert them into the resources that they need to support them."
Mental health and substance abuse disorders are prevalent in the state's jails and houses of correction. Koutoujian said about half of the inmates he oversees have a history of a mental illness and he is proud of the programing he provides, but thinks it could be better delivered elsewhere.
"You shouldn't have to come to jail to get treatment," Koutoujian said.
Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed $250,000 from the fiscal 2018 budget that had been earmarked for the first year of a four-year pilot restoration center in the county. The governor wrote that funding for the program was "not recommended."
"Although Governor Baker decided to veto this budget, I am hopeful that the Legislature will override this veto when we take up veto overrides," Friedman said.
The House plans to take up veto overrides on Wednesday. The leaders of both the House and Senate have said they want major movement on criminal justice reforms this year, though the specifics of what might be included in that legislation are still anyone's guess.
The mental health committee did not hear from any opponents of the proposal on Tuesday, although as the costs of the endeavor become more clearly defined it could come into conflict with other priorities. Donnelly's bill does not include any spending, and Koutoujian said the commission would determine the scale and structure of the facility.
"You could start this program in very small numbers just to work out the kinks and begin it," Koutoujian suggested.
A model for the program is the Bexar County Restoration Center in San Antonio, Texas, which Koutoujian visited in January. The sheriff said local officials would need to develop a program to meet Middlesex County's available resources and needs.
For some, the need for a restoration center – or something like it – has been a longstanding need.
Timothy Smith told lawmakers that last year his older brother was suffering from a manic episode and neither the police nor a hospital would take him in so he was "on the street." For Smith, who said his brother is now doing well, the incident recalled a similar one 24 years earlier.
"It's been 24 years of the revolving door that people have just spoken about – jail time, not getting supports that one needs," Smith said.