“Aiding the ‘least of the least’: Politicians break ground on behavioral health center”

Cobb County Board of Health and Community Services Board Chairman Dr. Dan Stephens, left, welcomes Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday to the groundbreaking for a 24-bed stabilization unit health center, to be on County Services Road in Marietta. Advocates say the center will give individuals suffering from addictions and mental illnesses a place for rehabilitation and eliminate burdens on law enforcement.   Staff/Kelly J. Huff

Aiding the ‘least of the least’: Politicians break ground on behavioral health center by Nikki Wiley

MARIETTA – State and local politicians broke ground on a behavioral health center in Marietta on Tuesday.

Advocates say it will give individuals suffering from addictions and mental illnesses a place for rehabilitation and eliminate burdens on law enforcement.

The 19,000-square-foot center being constructed by the Cobb Community Services Board will have 24 stabilization beds where clients needing immediate care can be treated and four transition beds for clients awaiting placement at a longer-term rehabilitation facility. It will also offer a walk-in assessment center 24 hours a day.

Clients suffering from substance abuse addictions and other mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, are among those who will be served at the facility.

Most clients are the working poor, and many have found themselves facing criminal charges, said Tod Citron, executive director of Cobb Community Services Board, which is funded mostly by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities and receives some additional income from federal grants.

Dr. Dan Stephens, chair of the board, added the center will serve “the least of the least.”

The center is expected to open in spring 2015 at 1775 County Services Parkway, Marietta, across from the Cobb Adult Detention Center. The cost is anticipated to be between $6 million and $7 million to build, but no contract has been awarded yet to a developer. Another $5.2 million will be spent on operation costs each year.

About 60 new employees will be hired to staff the center with a payroll of $4 million, including the cost of benefits.

The center is part of a settlement Georgia reached with the federal government following a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice that alleged unlawful segregation of individuals with mental illness and developmental disabilities in state hospitals. Georgia will eventually operate six centers throughout the state under the agreement.

Georgia residents were advocating for the services decades before the lawsuit was filed, said Frank Berry, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities . “For a community to believe its citizens can live a life of recovery is remarkable,” Berry said at the ceremony.

Gov. Nathan Deal attended Tuesday’s groundbreaking, alongside his wife, Sandra Deal, and said the federal lawsuit caused a burden on the state, but added the center will provide a valuable resource for Cobb.

“Sometimes when life is a puzzle, it’s hard to see how the pieces fit together,” Deal said.

The center will decrease time spent by law enforcement officers transporting potentially mentally ill or unstable individuals to assessment centers in Rome and Flowery Branch in Hall County, said Cobb Chairman Tim Lee who serves on the Cobb Community Services Board. Cobb sent about 1,100 individuals to those facilities last year, he said.

Employees who are trained to make immediate behavioral and mental health assessments will be on staff around the clock at the new center, and Deal said it will go a long way in aiding law enforcement officers who are trying to determine where to place someone who is possibly suffering from an addiction or another illness.

“This is going to provide local access for emergency-type services, for stabilization-type services, and who is it going to help? Not just those who need those services and the families of those who need those services, it’s going to also help law enforcement,” Deal said. “One of the chief complaints that law enforcement has always had is the time that it took to transport an individual who needed evaluation to an institutional hospital without the certainty of how long it was going to take for that analysis to occur.”

Substance abuse is the leading cause of nonviolent criminal offenses, the governor said.

Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren estimates between 60 percent and 65 percent of jail inmates suffer from type of substance addiction. The behavioral health center will offer courts and officers another tool to encourage rehabilitation, he said, rather than incarceration.

Two accountability courts that stress rehabilitation over jail time have been started in Cobb over the last year, and Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds expects the behavioral health center will help defendants in those courts get the care they need.

“What we’re hoping it will do is provide a location where clients who are in accountability courts, which include mental health court and veteran courts, a location and a place to go where the services can be provided to them,” Reynolds said.

Cobb’s mental health court saw its first participants in June 2013 with the goal of keeping non-violent offenders who have committed a felony — and who have a mental illness — out of jail and in a treatment program. That court is overseen by Cobb Superior Court Judge Mary Staley and is modeled after the county’s 12-year-old drug court.

A second accountability court specifically for veterans is expected to get started in July under Cobb Superior Court Judge Reuben Green.

Felons who have committed violent acts, such as armed robbery, are not considered for either court.

The foundation of those courts, Reynolds said, is requiring accountability both for actions taken by the defendant and for treatment.

“The difficult thing with accountability courts is having enough services to provide to individuals who are in it so that we can get them out of the system,” Reynolds said.

Deal said those courts, combined with facilities like the behavioral health center, help target the root of some criminal activity.

“The best way to deal with them is to deal with the things that got them into trouble in the first place,” Deal said. “If we simply incarcerate people and ignore the reason they were in trouble, we’re inviting a repeat of that process once they are out of the penal system.”