Kadner: Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart launches help line for mentally ill
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org August 5, 2013 10:16PM
Updated: September 7, 2013 6:14AM
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who finds himself running the largest mental health institution in the state, has launched a program to address the issue.
Dart has created an Office of Mental Health Policy and Advocacy at the Cook County Jail and established a 24-hour outreach program to help detainees suffering from mental health issues and their families.
“Every detainee we’ve identified as suffering from mental health issues, as they are leaving our facility, will be handed a business card containing the telephone number of a 24-hour help line manned by real people that they can call,” said Cara Smith, chief of policy and communications for the sheriff.
“We often get people returning to the system because for some reason they can no longer get their medications. We will become their advocates if they’re having problems with a pharmacy or the bureaucracy,” Smith said.
“Too often in our high-tech society, people find themselves calling telephone numbers over and over and then they’re told by a tape recording to ‘press 1, press 2, press 17’ when all they really need is to talk to another human being to solve their problem. Our people will be at the other end of the line every day of the week when they call.”
Cook County Jail holds about 10,000 inmates on any given day, and Dart estimates that about 3,000 are usually suffering from mental health issues.
As I explained in a previous column, Dart has hired a specialist and support staff to screen new arrivals at the jail each day to determine if they are suffering from mental health problems.
“The difference between our detainees is significant because those who are our regular guys typically start talking to us about their crimes, what they’re charged with and ask for a public defender,” Smith said.
“Those suffering from mental ailments, the first thing they ask is if we can help them get their meds or if we can help them find a place to live when they’re released.”
Smith emphasized that the mentally ill are often arrested for “very petty sorts of offenses.”
“We’re just trying to keep them from recycling through the system,” she explained. “They don’t really belong here. But they’re here because so many of the support services for the mentally ill have been cut by the government.”
In addition to helping the detainees, Dart’s office also hopes its 24-hour telephone line will provide assistance to their families.
“If a loved one ends up in Cook County Jail, the family may want to contact someone to explain (the person’s) history or their special needs,” Smith said.
She said if someone is being treated at Cermak Health Services, the jail’s health center, families often can’t even verify that because of health privacy guidelines under federal law.
Explaining that Cermak is not operated by the sheriff’s department but is part of the county health and hospital system, Smith said Dart has decided to act as an intermediary between the families and the health care staff.
“We’ll make sure the health staff are aware of any special needs the detainee has and also let the family know what’s going on with that detainee,” Smith said. “The families can provide us with some very important background on the medical history of the person.
“Again, our goal is to stop this recycling process if we can and work with the families to keep these people out of the criminal justice system.”
The business cards distributed to the detainees by the sheriff’s staff will not only contain the number for his 24-hour telephone service, but the numbers for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) of Greater Chicago and Mount Sinai Hospital. The cards are printed in English on one side and Spanish on the other.
The telephone number for Cook County’s Office of Mental Health and Advocacy is (773) 674-2273. The number for NAMI of Greater Chicago is (312) 563-0445. And the number for Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago (1500 S. Fairfield) is (773) 532-2000.
This is a remarkable example of a public servant, the Cook County sheriff, recognizing a public problem and providing a response that ought to help people and perhaps reduce the number of mentally ill patients who are forced into the penal system.
Dart has made it clear to me and others that he understands many of these unfortunate individuals are only in the criminal justice system because society has failed them.
Both the city of Chicago and the state have cut their mental health budgets in recent years. Illinois shut down the Tinley Park Mental Health Center, the only hospital treating the mentally ill in South Cook County and Northern Will County, one year ago.
Last month, I wrote a column about Elli Petacque Montgomery, whom Dart has placed in charge of screening and establishing a program of follow-up care for the mentally ill at Cook County Jail.
It’s a painful process to watch Montgomery interviewing the hundreds of new inmates in a holding pen, while trying to identify those who are suffering from mental illness.
It’s also educational.
“The sheriff is facing the reality that we (jail) have become the place where the mentally ill get dumped because society refuses to deal with them in a humane way,” Smith said. “It’s one of a number of societal problems we now have to deal with because no one else is willing to step up and say this has to stop.”
Dart this year has also launched an inspector general program to investigate charges of government corruption in the suburbs.
The fact is that the mentally ill have no voice in the political process and are easy targets for those looking to cut government budgets.
Dart’s efforts are far more likely to attract critics than pubic praise.
But this is an outstanding effort by a public official to do what is right by citizens who have been dumped in the gutter by society.
Dart simply wants to help them, not cage them like animals.