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Published January 05, 2009, 12:00 AM

Mental illness screening program for Cass inmates planned

Cass County Jail officials plan to implement a new diversion program later this month that aims to cut down on inmates who may be suffering from untreated or undertreated mental illness.

By: Benny Polacca, The Forum

Cass County Jail officials plan to implement a new diversion program later this month that aims to cut down on inmates who may be suffering from untreated or undertreated mental illness.

The county’s Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Project will be used to identify people booked into the jail who are showing signs of mental illness. The inmates will then be given a mental illness screening to determine eligibility for the voluntary diversion program.

Potential benefits of the program for its participants include case management, medication monitoring, chemical dependency treatment (as needed), and deferred or suspended sentences – depending on the charges.

This program – the first of its kind in North Dakota – was created thanks to a nearly $250,000 grant awarded to the county by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2007.

The grant is being used to fund a full-time clinical mental health coordinator who will conduct the screenings, a grant manager to oversee the program and a contracted case manager from the Southeast Human Service Center in Fargo to work with program participants.

“What we would be doing is saying, ‘We want to offer this program that’s going to really help you be successful … and to help you to not come back here again,’ ” said Sheree Spear, the project’s grant manager.

Under the jail diversion program, inmates are eligible if:

- They are adults and North Dakota residents.

- They are diagnosed with selected conditions, including schizophrenia, bipolar I or II, and mood or psychotic disorders.

- They are charged with misdemeanor or Class C felony offenses. Those charged with offenses requiring sex offender registration are not eligible.

County officials have noted for years that some inmates with mental illnesses keep reappearing in jail. The Sheriff’s Office, which is managing the project, formed a committee in 2004 to explore ways to better serve inmates with mental illnesses.

Jail staffers currently monitor the behaviors of inmates to look for signs of mental illness and refer those who may need help to a worker from the Southeast Human Service Center for assessment, Spear said. Unfortunately, not everyone flagged by jailers received a psychiatric assessment because of a lack of resources, she said.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, 171 detainees were referred for psychiatric assessments by jail workers in 2005, but only 90 of them received an assessment.

“These are people who are likely slipping through the cracks,” Spear said in pursuing the program funding.

Cass County commissioners voted to accept the $249,973 federal grant for the project in September 2007. The county was one of about 26 entities countrywide awarded grant funding, Spear said.

Lynette Tastad was hired as the project’s clinical mental health coordinator last month. She previously worked for Southeast Human Service Center and served as a jail liaison in providing assessments for detainees.

Tastad said she will work between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. but may adjust her schedule if needed.

The program may not take full effect until later this month because the Southeast Human Service Center is in the process of filling the case manager position, Spear said.

Tastad said interviews for the position were slated last week and this week.

Spear describes the role of a case manager as the “lifeline” to the real world for program participants who may not be able to help themselves. The program “is about helping someone build a life – sometimes from scratch,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Benny Polacca at (701) 241-5504