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Clayton County’s Mental Health Treatment Center could use some help from the FY 2015 budget

JONESBORO — Mr. D. needed help.

The mentally-ill, homeless man spent 385 days in Clayton County Jail between January 2011 and August 2013.

“We also knew that he’d been jailed in Fulton and Dekalb,” Jane Glaze Horton said. “But just in Clayton County — 385 days.”

Mr D. is the pseudonym for a man Horton calls the “shining star” of the Clayton County Mental Health Treatment Court where she works as the interim program coordinator. He has not been arrested once since entering the program in August 2013 — one month after it first opened.

“He’s compliant on his medication, he lives in a personal care home that he pays for, he has a part-time weekend job — we found out he has a girlfriend,” Horton said. “When he first started coming into the program, you could tell there were some issues there by the way he dressed, the way he acted. The last time he came to court, he was wearing a suit and was clean and as eloquent as he can be.”

But the program that helped Mr. D. and other mentally-ill inmates over the past year needs help from the Clayton County government.

The program aids non-violent offenders who repeatedly land in jail as a result of untreated mental illness by providing them with social security, medical help and education about their illness. For the most part, It’s been working, but there’s a piece missing.

Clayton County Probate Judge Pam Ferguson was appointed as the State Court judget to preside over the Treatment Court.

“All we’re asking for is a program coordinator,” Ferguson said. “We’re not asking for anything other than that.”

Ferguson and Horton stood up during the county’s budget meeting last week to ask the Board of Commissioners for $50,000 and benefits to hire a program coordinator who is licensed to perform biopsychosocial assessments — a licensed clinical social worker who can diagnose the patients in-house to streamline the process.

Without a licensed clinician, the program can only take on a maximum of 10 patients. There are eight patients in the program right now.

“The inn is almost full — and I would hate for it to come to a point where the inn would have to close down,” Horton said.

The court posted a job opening for the program coordinator position, but it can’t offer enough money to entice potential employees, since it is still operating off money left over from the Bureau of Justice Assistance grant for $50,000 and the $12,500 match from the county it’s been operating on since 2012.

“We’ve learned that we can’t operate without a coordinator,” Ferguson said. “That is a viable piece.”

If the moral value of the Treatment Court doesn’t sway the budget in Ferguson and Horton’s favor, the women hope the practicality of the program might.

Clayton County was one of the few metro Atlanta areas not to have a Mental Health Treatment Court before the program began last year — but it might have needed one the most because of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

“There’s more percentage of people with mental illness that are homeless,” Ferguson said. “And for some reason, people that are homeless end up at the airport. I don’t know the exact connection, but they do. So, what happens is that if they have mental illness, they’re more likely to get arrested, and, of course, because the airport’s in Clayton County, they end up coming to Clayton County.”

Horton said incarcerating this particular influx of inmates ends up costing the county more than treating them.

“A regular inmate costs $47 a day, approximately,” Horton said. “Someone with mental health issues costs at least three times that amount, because there’s the addition of medication and doctors and risk factors.”

Medicaire and Medicaid cover treatment costs for inmates who come out of jail and into the Mental Health Treatment program. The patients are also eligable for social security, which pays for their housing.

“Instead of costing the jail for their medical and housing, they now pay for it themselves,” Horton said.

She said they’re also unlikely to end up homeless, loitering in the airport or spending time in Clayton County jails again.

Despite the potential of the program to “not cost” the county thousands of dollars, both Horton and Ferguson said they weren’t sure whether to feel optimistic about the likelihood of the $50,000 funding the court needs to carry on.

“The commissioners are presented a budget and the commissioners have to determine what budget they vote on,” Ferguson said. “I don’t know right now.”

Funding for the Mental Health Treatment Court had not been included in the draft of the Fiscal Year 2015 budget. Commissioners hope to have the budget approved June 17 and must have it approved by June 30.