NAMI Utah's Advocacy in Mental Health Courts
By Laura Usher, NAMI CIT Program Manager
Jackie Rendo works for NAMI Utah, but as the liaison to three mental health courts, she spends many of her days out of the office and in court. “During the court sessions I try to make contact with everyone in the court, and find out about the week. That’s often how I will find out what nobody else knows–that someone’s having a problem with a family member, or that their dog died.” Rendo’s job is to provide support and if necessary, take the information to the court staff and judge to make sure that the person gets the help they need.
Rendo says one key ingredient to working with the mental health court is respect for the participants. Some people might be intimidated by working with felons, but she does not focus on the crime or the diagnosis, but on the person. She says, “They are so used to people putting them down and treating them poorly…I have to give them time to trust. They can tell if they are being treated poorly by yet another person who is just doing a job.”
Mental health courts, which provide an alternative to jail for people with mental illness, are growing around the country. The courts allow an individual to serve his sentence in the community, and provide a treatment plan for individuals to follow, typically for 12-18 months. Participants meet regularly with the judge, and they have to follow their treatment plan or risk going back to jail.
Rendo plays multiple roles in the courts she works with. She sees court participants outside of court in the social group for individuals living with mental illnesses. NAMI Utah also offers the BRIDGES education course to help individuals transition from the court-based services to the NAMI services available in the community.
In court, she checks in with the participants and provides moral support. Rendo says all this informal contact makes it possible for her to be a part of the “court staffing”–a team of court and treatment staff that meet weekly to discuss each participant’s progress. She brings up issues that the treatment team might not know about, and that participants are often afraid to raise in court. Says Rendo, “If [participants] tell me something that they don’t want to share, I keep it confidential,” but there are many times when the individual wants Rendo to share information with the court. For example, if the staff social worker says that a participant is engaging in problematic behavior, Rendo can often give a perspective on the individual’s mental illness contributed to the behavior. She can help the others understand what happened, especially if she’s already talked it through with the participant.
Rendo also provides a reality check to the court staff. When a participant was caught with drugs, another member of the court staff said he needed to get new friends who weren’t involved in drugs. Rendo defended the participant, saying it can be hard for a person coping with serious mental illness to make new friends. “We are social creatures. We crave social interactions. If you say they can only have good friends, they can never have a friend.”
Utah courts have welcomed NAMI’s participation in the mental health courts programs. Rendo says the key to a successful partnership is approaching the court to help and slowly working towards a more active role. Rendo's predecessor served initially as a support and mentor for the court participants, occasionally bringing information or concerns to the court staff, and was ultimately invited to join the court staffings. Free NAMI programs, like NAMI Peer-to-Peer and NAMI Connection, can provide support and education to court participants. And they are a resource for the court because they help people better and not re-offend.
Now Rendo serves as a trusted advocate who can help participants while also respecting the court. She is an integral part of the court staff and credits the judges and other staff members she works with for listening and always taking her feedback into account.