Law

Kentville tests pilot project for mental health in courts

Court-monitored program offers support to Valley residents who are involved in criminal activity while suffering from mental health disorders

The panel of speakers
The panel, from left to right: Ken Greer, Alan Tufts, Ingrid Brodie, Chrystal MacAulay, Valerie Davis   Linea Volkering

Where mental health is concerned, criminal court cases can be even more complex than usual.

Kentville N.S., is in the midst of testing a pilot project for a court-monitored mental health program. The Kings and West Hants Court Monitored Health Program is meant to support and identify people in the court system with mental illnesses. It is also a relatively cost effective model.

On Wednesday evening, health-care and law professionals attended a panel at the Dalhousie Schulich Law School about the project. Speaking on the panel were individuals who have made significant efforts to bring life to the project.

Valerie Davis, a health services manager with the Eastern Kings Community Health Centre,  acknowledged that community services, especially those outside of the Halifax Regional Municipality, “aren’t as strong as they need to be to help support people to stay away from interacting with the law, or finding themselves in front of a judge.”

“What we wanted were safe and appropriate outcomes for people who live with severe illness who are, for whatever reason, in conflict with the law,” she said.

Ingrid Brodie explains the importance of the project.
“Having cases just go through a traditional court system wasn’t really addressing long term approaches to our individuals in the community,” said Ingrid Brodie.   Linea Volkering

The program begins with a person who has accepted responsibility for his or her criminal behaviour.  Once accepted into the program, the individual receives a specific support plan. Regular meetings are held in a courtroom in order to stay up to date with the person’s progress.

The program depends on a “woven response” from support communities, families and the individuals themselves to offer a broad base of resources. Someone who completes the program will continue to receive community and health services after they are done.

Davis explained that the police forces in the Kentville community helped start the initial process for change.

“They were concerned that people with mental health issues were spending nights in cells and not hospitals, concerned about police transport without a care plan and people not having needs met in the emergency department,” said Davis.

Not for everyone

In order to qualify for the voluntary program, a person must have to want to do it. Secondly, they need to meet specific eligibility criteria:

  • They need to be minimum 18 years of age
  • Reside in Kings/West Hants County and be charged with an offence in that region
  • They need to be diagnosed with a mental illness, particularly one that is known to impair judgment
  • The person must acknowledge responsibility for whatever basis for the crime they have been accused of
  • There needs to be a connection between criminal behaviour and the mental health disorder
  • The Crown attorney needs to give consent that the accused can participate in the program

While the program is in its pilot phase, more high risk or complicated cases will not be considered for the program.  High-risk cases involve people with significant public safety offences, substantial criminal records and a history of not following rules specific to them.

Getting the support system

Ingrid Brodie, chief Crown attorney of the western region and another panelist at the event, noted that the program has been successful so far with no “revolving door” return cases. However, with that said, “it’s still early days.”

“We need to recognize that we are this thin, thin slice of beginning a new way that for a lifetime for that individual, their family and the community is going to carry on,” Brodie said.

The pilot project is going forward in hopes that, if successful, communities similar to Kentville can make use of the model’s framework.