Last week’s meeting went well. Kayla Kates-Brown of the Texas Commission on Health and Human Services, or HHS, read out some changes to the meeting itinerary. She collected the votes of the members present to proceed.
The laborious boredom you would expect from a virtual meeting of the state government subcommittee seemed to have settled over the debates on Capitol Hill. Subcommittee members kept their cameras turned off as HHS Deputy Executive Commissioner Scott Schalchlin briefed them on the agency’s efforts to expand the capacity of the Texas state mental hospital system.
His updates did not satisfy Sheriff Dennis Wilson, chairman of the committee. It was then that sparks began to fly.
“I’m going to ask you a question since you’re new to our group: I speak on behalf of the Sheriff’s Association of Texas…and those of us who run county jails, we just want to know what the plan is,” Wilson noted.
Wilson leads the Joint Committee on Access and Forensic Services, a group of advocates, law enforcement officials and policy experts charged with helping shape the state’s mental health services of the HHS. And he was clearly fed up with HHS.
” From [Jan. 24], there were 2,127 people sitting in county jail court ordered by a district judge to receive state services,” he continued, his voice growing louder. “County-level labor is getting weaker and weaker and weaker, and when they bring them in through the backdoor of the county jails, we can’t say no, they have to come into our county jails.
“And I’m telling you right now, the system is going to break down soon, because the counties can’t find the employees … to provide court-ordered services, from the state.”
Wilson’s acerbic response to the state commissioner channeled frustrations that local advocates and families of people with mental illness have been expressing for months.
Long before the start of the pandemic, increasing numbers of people with mental illness were forced to sit in county jails, awaiting court-ordered “skills restoration” treatment in a public mental hospital.
“It’s heartbreaking to see these people who have to stay in our prisons week after week, month after month, year after year, and we still can’t get them hospitalized.” – Sheriff Dennis Wilson
Texas laws aim to protect people with mental illness from criminal prosecution if experts conclude they suffered from a mental health crisis while allegedly committing a crime.
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice administer “skills recovery” programs to these individuals. The goal is not therapeutic; they aim to bring the psychological state of individuals back to the minimum threshold of mental function necessary to prosecute them.
The waiting list has continued to grow during the pandemic. In October, it reached what was then a new all-time high of 1,813. Then it broke another record on Monday last week, when the subcommittee reported that 2,127 people were awaiting restoration of their skills in the county jails.
“Please get down to the county level and see what we’re going through,” Wilson told Schalchlin. “Because it’s heartbreaking to see these people who have to stay in our prisons week after week, month after month, year after year, and we still can’t get them hospitalized.”
Krish Gundu, co-founder and executive director of the Texas Jail Project, warned in October that the growing waiting list would make life much harder for Texans with mental illnesses who are caught up in the justice system.
“Every stakeholder in the health and criminal sanctions system can choose to prevent vulnerable people from being stuck on the skills restoration waiting list,” she said. “We have a moral obligation to do everything in our power to reduce the waiting list.”
Responding to Wilson, Schalchlin said, “I don’t know if I’m quite ready to answer that question.”
He then told Wilson he was “happy to come back at the next meeting” after working with others at HHS, so they could “explain some of the things that we’re doing to try to provide more support to people.” counties”.
The next sub-committee meeting is scheduled for May.