SPECIAL REPORT: Court in Polk County opened to help troubled people now shuttered

Mental Health Court graduate Lana Squires hugs Lee Warren, a senior probation officer with Polk County Community Corrections and her former parole officer, at the Polk County Mental Health Court Graduation on April 2, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

DALLAS –  Inside an airplane hangar-sized room at the Oregon National Guard Nesmith Readiness Center, 52 chairs were arrayed 6 feet apart. They faced a judge, seven court officials and two recovering addicts.

The space filled to standing-room only, socially distanced. And when Polk County Circuit Judge Norman Hill took the microphone that morning, his voice carried notes of both pride and disappointment.

“I want to welcome all of you here today. As most of you know, this is our last graduation,” said the judge, appointed in 2012.

Friday, April 2, was the final graduation day for Polk County’s mental health court.

The program seen as a key to helping the community deal with individuals suffering mental illnesses or addictions and keeping them out of jail was over. Polk County officials elected to try a new tack but those involved in mental health court say it should have been continued.

Founded in 2016 by Hill and a small team of Polk County court and law enforcement officers, mental health court was nicknamed “Friday Court” because of its Friday morning sessions. The court has been a partnership between the Polk County Circuit Court and Polk County Community Corrections.

The program helped people charged with minor crimes who exhibited severe and persistent mental health issues. Participants for about 18 months attended treatment sessions and community self-help groups, took multiple urinalysis tests per week, and met regularly with their counselors and probation officer.

But perhaps the most impact of mental health court was the contact participants had each Friday with Hill, who helped them stick with the program. Once they made progress, they could begin focusing on long-term life changes for when they’d be out on their own.

The two recovering addicts seated in the front of the room on that last Friday, facing an audience, were Lana Squires and Nathan Stevens.

Squires’ blond hair was clipped back in a gold barrette. Her pink, knee-length dress revealed a black stemmed rose tattoo extending up her right shin. 

Stevens wore black slacks and a casual long-sleeved shirt. His shaved head was crisscrossed with zipper tattoos he designed himself; his ear lobes, stretched to inch-wide circles. 

Both wore masks for Covid safety. Their composure appeared to conceal mixed emotions on this momentous day.

Squires, 36, said she began using drugs when she was 11 and by her twenties, she was addicted to methamphetamine. She lost custody of her daughter. Her life was a cycle of addiction, psychosis and arrests. Her mother Brenda Kenney drove from Colorado to attend Squires’ graduation.

Kenney’s eyes welled with tears as she spoke about her only child.  

“I really didn’t think I would ever get her back,” she said.

The concern for her daughter was well founded. 

Squires ended up homeless for two years, shooting up meth on the streets in Multnomah County with an ex-boyfriend, who beat her. She would find places to sleep outside churches, in bushes along the Springwater Trail and beneath door awnings.

“I felt lost out there on the streets,” she said in an interview with Salem Reporter. “The meth keeps you warm when you’re out there on the cold streets. It keeps you going but it also throws you into psychosis.”

She was arrested repeatedly in Multnomah County for drug possession and harassment, but not for major crimes. While driving through Polk County with her ex-boyfriend, she was arrested for having a dirty meth needle. 

That arrest proved to be her ticket into mental health court.

Polk County Circuit Judge Norman R. Hill speaks to attendees at the Polk County Mental Health Court Graduation on April 2, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Stevens, 36, of Independence, grew up in a family of crime, suicide and violence. Suffering mental illness and addiction himself, his life turned violent. A jailmate familiar with Stevens’ mental health struggles suggested he sign up for Polk County’s mental health court.

“I had drug charges and person-to-person crimes. I wrote a letter and presented it [to mental health court] because I knew I had been dealing with mental illness for a long time and hadn’t gotten it taken care of at all,” Stevens said. “I said, ‘look, I need help or I’m never going to get out of the system.’”

Squires and Stevens took about 18 months to complete the conditions of the mental health court. By the time they entered the program, their lives had been reduced to unimaginable pain and trauma, and their drug-sick brains had rendered them confused and defiant.

But over their time in the court program, which is longer than most other treatment programs, Hill and the mental health court team watched them change. They attended court every Friday, worked with probation officers to stay clean, received cognitive behavioral therapy and got help finding the right medications to adjust chemical imbalances in their brains.

“Judge Hill would ask us questions about how we were doing,” Squires said. “It made me nervous but then I started feeling confident. I wanted to make him proud. I wanted to live up to his standard because he’s a person of respect. I think judges command more respect than a caseworker who isn’t a judge.”

Squires said the judge would listen to her weekly updates and then run through the court issues with her. He helped her get over her struggles, and when she’d get emotional before him, he would be both soothing and strong.

“Court contact is the whole piece that holds us accountable. Without that piece it’s not the same.  It’s huge in recovery because you have to hold yourself accountable to change,” Squires said. Stepping to the microphone, Squires told the audience, “With treatment it becomes tolerable enough for an individual to be able to gain the self control needed to combat the effects suffered from the disease of addiction. This work is heavy, hard, and physiologically healing.”

Squires read from her speech, printed on white sheets of paper that she clutched tightly. Her voice was strong and determined but sometimes she’d stumble on words and lift her eyes to make contact with Hill and the panel. Squires’ mother sat in the front row recording video of her daughter on a cell phone.

Squires and Stevens say that no other program had worked for them and that mental health court was unique because of the team, the program’s length and being accountable to Hill every Friday.

“Judge Hill is a father figure to me,” Squires said.

Mental Health Court graduate Lana Squires gives a speech during the program’s graduation on April 2, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The mental health court traces back to 2015, when Hill ordered probation and mental health evaluation for a young man who’d been caught in a revolving door of repeat addiction and arrests. 

After court adjourned following one appearance, the young man’s father approached the judge and pleaded with him. 

As Hill recalled the conversation, the man told him, “I love my son. He’s a great kid, a wonderful student who graduated with honors in high school…but then at about 18-19 years old, he started getting sick and his mental illness developed…it’s been a constant stream of trying to get him into therapy watching him get arrested, back on probation, over and over again – what do I do? How do I stop this?”

Hill felt ashamed by his empty-handed answer, but took the moment as a call to action. This was one of countless cases he’d seen in which a person was caught in a cycle of addiction, arrest and incarceration. He took the father’s point to heart that the system wasn’t working. 

He went to then-County Commissioner Jennifer Wheeler for help. Their conversation seeded the idea for a jail diversion task force, which began meeting on a monthly basis. The goal was to figure out how to deal with people like the young man. The task force grew to include the sheriff, the district attorney, defense attorneys, local police agencies and probation.

One year later, mental health court was formed.

“This was organically created. This wasn’t a solution that a third party came in and said, ‘hey I’ll give you a bunch of grant money and if you do it our way, we’ll fund it,’ ” Hill told Salem Reporter. “This was Polk County government solving Polk County problems.”

Mental health court was designed to serve a narrow category of people like Squires and Stevens who, because of their addiction, mental illness and repeat offenses, continually entered the criminal justice system.

Since 2016, 52 people participated in the mental health court. Of them, 41 have not recidivated.

To be eligible for mental health court, participants had to be facing a criminal charge and be considered a high-risk offender. The court action provided the legal hook to get people into treatment, supervision and services. This left many mentally ill addicts ineligible for mental health court if they did not commit enough crimes or their offenses weren’t serious enough.

That excluded people like Alexandria Tereshka whose low-level offenses were drug possession and public disturbances. In her case, she was stuck in a void between two systems: public health and criminal justice. Her death on Highway 22 in 2018 was recorded as suicide.

Polk County District Attorney Aaron Felton, sworn into his position in 2013, was at first skeptical of mental health court but grew to champion it. He wanted to build on mental health court’s success by adding more tools.

He imagined, for example, a cadre of social workers who might team up with law enforcement as first responders for cases of mental illness and addiction as part of the process for determining mental health court eligibility. He hadn’t advanced the idea by the time mental health court wrapped up.

“Today is bittersweet,” Felton commented, as he surveyed the scene of mental health court’s last day.

The end of the court was brought on by the pandemic as the program tried to shift to an online version. Participation dropped by more than half.

The pandemic’s toll on the program would become contentious. Hill and Felton were in the room on Feb. 1 during a routine meeting of area public safety officials when they learned that Polk County commissioners were planning to shutter it.

The focus would shift to a new program called Forensic Assertive Community Treatment (FACT). 

Attendees listen in during the Polk County Mental Health Court Graduation on April 2, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Operated by the health entity PacificSource, the program would identify people in the community who appeared to need mental health and addiction intervention and persuade them to voluntarily sign up to participate. Arrests and sentences would no longer be a requirement, although many participants are still expected to flow through the justice system.

FACT will not have the coercive power of criminal justice. Participation is voluntary as opposed to participation on mental health court a requirement to avoid incarceration.

Felton was bothered by the development of removing the court’s role in treating criminally involved people who have severe mental illness. 

At the February meeting, Hill spoke up about the sudden change.

“With all due respect, I will vote against this,” Hill said. “Not because I don’t think FACT is something that should be explored, but I’m extremely disappointed with the manner in which this has been presented.” 

The judge also pointed to losing his involvement in working with people with severe mental illness, which had been such a key component of success in mental health court. FACT had yet to produce evidence it would reduce recidivism.

Instead, FACT was considered effective at keeping out of hospitals people with severe mental illness. That’s welcome news for the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, which has limited capacity.

“This is a push which largely has to do with our state hospital release population,” said Jennifer Lief, Polk County health services division manager. The state hospital’s readmission rate had gotten too high for people on a constant cycle of mental illness and addiction.

FACT will serve up to 55 people this year at a cost of $17,000 to $22,000 per person. The money comes from a blend of federal and state sources.

The program aims to serve a similar population as mental health court – individuals whose mental illness and or addiction leads to behavior that strains the system with repeat low-level offenses and public disturbances. 

Polk County’s FACT program launched the day before Lana Squires took the mic and extolled the virtues of mental health court.

But Squires has a hard time fathoming why mental health court can’t exist with FACT. She said she fell into a narrow category of people whose success at turning their lives around depended on key ingredients she could find only in mental health court.

“It’s resource allocation and staffing. We also have to have enough clients,” Lief said. “You can’t just do it with four or five clients or even six.”

Felton contends that the lower participation in mental health court in 2020 was linked to setbacks of the pandemic and represents a false metric.

Jodi Merritt, director of Polk County Community Corrections, pointed to a different reason for shuttering the program.

“It’s not serving those high risk, high need severely mentally ill individuals within our communities. Those that need high-level resources aren’t eligible, they’re unable to participate in the program as it’s structured,” Merritt said. 

Felton said he’s still learning about FACT, and thinks it’s a great endeavor that he wants to see succeed in making the public safer.

He wishes it didn’t have to replace mental health court. He hopes mental health court will come back later, as a niche program.

So does Hill.

“Do I hope mental health court can come back in the future? Yes, I’d like to see that,” he said.

Squires stood before the audience at her graduation ceremony, blue eyeliner smudged, reading her speech.

“Mental health court should be available to all who struggle with these complex diseases. If there ever was a solution for the diseases of mental illness and addiction, this is it,” she said. “This program gave me my life. It’s a shame that mental health court did not receive the acknowledgement and funding it deserves.”

After the ceremony, Squires and her mother left to drive to Colorado. Squires now lives with her mom and was also reunited with her 11-year-old daughter, whom her cousin adopted.

“I get to be a part-time mom and I plan on getting a low-wage job to start with, then building a life for myself because now I have all the tools because of this program and this team to become a success story and live a good life,” Squires said.

She is thinking about taking accounting courses at the local community college. 

Nathan Stevens recently won a scholarship for a $10,000 training program at Hot Rod Betties tattoo parlor in West Salem, and he is getting custody of his 7-year-old son.

But for mental health court, he said, he would have no such future.  And, he now wants to help others.

“What goes through my mind is I’m going to become a part of this community,” Stevens said. 

Share your news tips, story ideas or questions with Salem Reporter at [email protected].


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