By Isha Butler, NAMI Policy Intern
Eilene Flory is a probation officer in Deschutes County, Oregon, where she works as the specialized officer for offenders with severe and persistent mental illnesses. Eilene is a member of the local crisis intervention team (CIT) task force and works closely with local hospital staff, mental health staff, police departments, the prosecutor’s office and psychiatric units. She sat down with NAMI policy intern Isha Butler to tell us more about probation, parole and mental illness.
The role of a caseload carrying probation officer is very unique in the criminal justice system. We serve a dual purpose of enforcement of the conditions to supervision and as an agent for change. Research shows that the relationship between the probationer and the parole/probation officer is essential to the positive change process. One of the most important responsibilities of the officer is building that relationship. This is not to say the enforcement of laws and conditions is not important, for without being held accountable it is doubtful that many offenders would choose to modify their behavior or take the time to build that relationship with the officer.
One of the most important areas of the release plan, and the area that the least amount of attention is given to, is the need for continuing care when an offender with mental illness is released back into the community. Continuation of treatment is especially important for individuals given their lack of income, lack of insight into their illness and few to no ties to the community where they are released. Without ongoing treatment and support, the potential for behaviors viewed by the general public as disturbing or frightening may increase, bringing them back to the attention of law enforcement agencies resulting in future arrests.
Another challenge faced by individuals living with mental illness is the difficulty in establishing treatment with local treatment providers. Our local county mental health agency has very few openings for clients who are not covered with the Oregon Health Plan (our state’s Medicaid program). Without these benefits, the waiting for a screening for services has taken up to three to four weeks. Individuals may have difficulty with time management, lack of insight and concentration, and they often miss this window of opportunity. The offender is often released from prison with a 30-day supply of medication, but no future prescription for refills. If they miss that first appointment, they are usually without medications, creating even more confusion, difficulty with time management and missed future appointments. Their behavior often results in further contact with our local law enforcement agencies.
Each year in the United States, as many as one-half million offenders with mental illnesses are placed on probation. Probation officers have long been responsible for monitoring and enforcing the compliance of these individuals with the conditions of their probation. The number of offenders needing services is greater than the ability to meet the need. The highest positive outcomes come from probation officers with specialized caseloads who work closely with the local mental health agencies, therapists, and caseworker, doctors and social services agencies. When community partnerships were formed, the probationer’s recidivism rate decreases.
Probably the most important component to ensure success is to engage in treatment. With medication, counseling, and assistance to get the benefits that they are eligible for, the offender has the support needed to be successful.
I have found that NAMI is a great resource for the family members of individuals with mental illness, in and out of the legal system. Gaining an understanding of the illness, the warning signs of increased mental health symptoms, medication side effects and how to help the individual navigate the recovery system is essential. Many times the family members have not received the support that they need and have reached the end of their rope by the time that the individual has been incarcerated.
Deschutes County first decided to designate a specific parole/probation officer for the mentally ill population in 2003, when Parole and Probation Officer Pat Tabor found that she enjoyed working with this population and requested that she be assigned the offenders identified as having a mental illness. Because of the high level of need and the time involved with working with this population, the other officers were very happy to relinquish that part of their offender population and the specialized caseload was born.
Currently I am the PO for this specialized case load. My employment history includes 10+ years working in the county mental health system as a qualified mental health associate (QMHA). I am certified in the state to provide case management services to the severely and persistently mentally illl population.
As the Parole and Probation Officer for this population, I work closely with the local mental health providers in the community. Because of my history of working in that agency, I have a personal knowledge of how the program works and the people doing the job. I do a lot of case management types of things with my offenders–transport to appointments, assist with applications for benefits, sanction with treatment in mind–which is a different mindset from Parole and Probation Officer with a street crimes or domestic violence offender caseload.
The condition “mental Illness” covers many disorders, including depression. Because of the broad definition, my case load is limited to people with disorders that fall under the Axis I DSM IV diagnosis as having a significant mental illness such as schizophrenia, b bipolar disorder with psychotic features, or delusional disorders not otherwise specified. The predominant characteristic of this population is an overall instability in their life’s situations, e.g. inability to hold down a job, inability to maintain stable relationships with family, inability to bond with peers, isolation, and homelessness.
Yes, I worked with a young lady for about three years as her mental health case manager before transferring over to the parole/probation department. At that time she was on supervision for a drug charge (methamphetamine). She was homeless, without family support or income. She was connected to some services through mental health, but was not able to remain clean and sober and was often sanctioned by her probation officer. Moving into the position of her probation officer, I was able to help bridge the gap between her treatment needs and the needs of her probation. She was able to apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits and was recently awarded them. She has not been under supervision for almost 18 months and continues to do well in the community. She will often call just to stay in touch and report on her progress.
The most frequent violations to supervision conditions for this population include not keeping appointments with the probation or parole officer, or with treatment providers; moving from their reported address without notifying the probation or parole officer where they are moving to and committing new crimes, such as trespassing or shoplifting food and beer.
Deschutes County Behavioral Health has a program that is designed to work closely with the offenders on supervision with our department who are identified as having met SPMI diagnostic criteria. By working closely with the prescribing doctor and the offender’s therapist, the parole and probation officer encourages treatment compliance and recommendations over more standard conditions of supervision. Together we work to provide better coordination of services between the different agencies (police, jail, probation and parole and hospital) to better serve and manage these challenging clients.