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'We need to do something better' | Travis County leaders plan to open new mental health diversion center

The goal is to get those accused of low-level crimes mental health treatment instead of jail.

AUSTIN, Texas — Travis County leaders are moving forward with plans to build a new mental health diversion center.

Mental health diversion centers "divert" those accused of low-level crimes to get mental health treatment instead of going to jail.

On Tuesday, the KVUE Defenders looked at what Williamson County is doing to help mentally ill inmates.

In Travis County, 40% of the jail population deals with mental health issues.

KVUE Defenders reporter Jenni Lee went to the Travis County Jail to meet up with Travis County Judge Andy Brown to see how the jail handles mental health issues, including the initial assessment. However, cameras were not allowed beyond the lobby. 

After the tour, Brown told KVUE it is clear there isn't enough room for staff to evaluate arrestees and maintain privacy.

"It's a very small space ... They get a basic mental health assessment by kind of answering some yes or no questions. And that all happens right there immediately. And just a few feet the other direction is the sort of population of people who are waiting to be processed," Brown said.

Brown said one option is having a new diversion center across the street from the Travis County Jail, where a multi-level garage currently sits. He said the proximity makes it easier to transfer arrestees for mental health treatment. 

"The County owns that parking garage and the County, obviously, owns the jail in this facility. What I would like to do is build a mental health diversion center. It could all be right here," Brown said, adding, "Part of the thought was that it would save time for the police officers and for EMS if they didn't have to take the person to central booking, if they didn't have to take the person to the hospital. And most of the time where that was occurring was somewhere downtown."

According to the Travis County Sheriff's Office (TCSO), the jail population between the Travis County Jail in Downtown Austin and the Correctional Complex in Del Valle is a little more than 2,200. Authorities said around 40% of that population, or about 880 inmates, are dealing with mental health issues.  

Data from the TCSO also showed how the jail population fluctuated during the pandemic. 

The jail reported 2,164 inmates in March 2020. The population then dropped to 1,400 in March 2021, before bouncing back up in 2022 with a high of 2,300 inmates reported in August of last year.

"We need to do something better," Brown said.

Brown and other County and mental health leaders visited other diversion centers, like those in Nashville and Houston, for best practices. Among those who went was Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez.

"We're not a hospital. We're a correctional facility.  And so, it's a huge responsibility and it's a huge expense," Hernandez said.

Hernandez said a new diversion center would give law enforcement another alternative to get mental health care to those in crisis.

"They'd have other options other than just taking them to the E.R., taking them to the jail. So it would get officers back on the streets answering other calls," she said.

However, law enforcement in Travis County has another choice. The Judge Guy Herman Center for Mental Crisis Care diverts those in emergency detention from emergency rooms and offers short-term psychiatric crisis care, among other services. It is run by Integral Care, and Dawn Handley is the Chief of Operations.

"What's really special about our program is that we designed it from a trauma-informed care. So it's not an institutional setting," Handley said. "And in here, we really wanted to bring in natural light, natural colors [and it's] more therapeutic for those counseling sessions."

Baleigh Willis, 22, told KVUE tough times the past couple of years landed her at the Herman Center three times.

"I guess I ended up driving recklessly and I was out, I was not there. And I probably would have ended up going to jail if somebody didn't call mental health officers on me," Willis said.

Willis described how the Herman Center helped her.

"The psychiatrists and the nurses are very helpful, super nice, very calm...I never had any instances where I felt uncomfortable or unsafe like I was able to talk to them about anything and they helped me get through my visits," Willis said.

Lee asked Willis, "Bailey, what would have happened if there was no Hermann Center in Travis County?"

Willis answered, "yeah. I don't know. There'd be a lot of people in the wrong places. And I feel like bad things might happen to them."

Willis is one of about 2,500 people the Herman Center has served since it opened in 2017. But with 16 beds, County and mental health leaders said more needs to be done to provide access to emergency psychiatric services.

"We really view mental health care as health care," Handley said.

To see how a working mental health diversion center operates, KVUE visited Williamson County's Mental Health Diversion Center. It opened its doors in 2022 and serves up to 10 people. 

Amanda Coleman is the director of crisis systems with Bluebonnet Trails Community Services.

"We're at a really pivotal time in our communities and our counties in our state, where people are shifting from the pandemic and into a different world. So the responsibility, I think, that we have taken on as a diversion center is to figure out how we can meet a wide spectrum of needs in the diversion center model that we have," Coleman said. "We're able to serve a wide scope of individuals who have an unmet need related to crisis and whatever that is."

"Sometimes, these short, limited crises can be solved in such a short period of time. We can provide that support here," said Kyle McCall, program manager with Bluebonnet Trails Community Services.

A steering committee of mental health experts from UT's Dell Medical School will soon make recommendations to Travis County commissioners on how to go about implementing the new diversion center. 

Daniel Smith, the director of inmate mental health and programs at the TCSO, said providing mental health care to nearly 900 inmates in Travis County is challenging.

Part of the reason is staffing shortages.

Data obtained from the TCSO shows that out of the authorized 726 corrections officer positions, the County is down 255, or a 35% vacancy rate.  

Smith also said a new diversion center needs to be more than just a new building.

"Not everybody needs the same level of care. And unless we create a system of care that meets the needs on multiple levels, we're not going to be serving those that are needing the services," Smith said.

According to the Texas Judicial Commission on Mental Health, Dallas, Tarrant, Harris and Bexar counties already have diversion centers. Travis County is one of several counties looking into opening a diversion center. Other counties include Hays, Bell, Comal, McLennan, Smith and Lubbock. 

Executive Director Kristi Taylor said diversion centers are popular with communities. 

"So a diversion center provides a quick turnaround for law enforcement. It's the least restrictive environment that people deserve, and it connects people to resources that will help them with healing rather than being incarcerated and possibly decompensating," Taylor said.  

County Judge Andy Brown said it's too early in the process to determine how much a new diversion center will cost.

Travis County commissioners are expected to take up the issue at the March 7 commissioners court meeting.

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