If it took a village to help the mentally handicapped through the challenges of the civil and criminal court systems, Donna Ecclestone was the village mayor.
The District 1 commissioner in Komal County was among many inside a crowded courtroom who saw their efforts materialized through the formal establishment of the county’s first mental health court.
“It was her patience — sometimes lacking but definitely her patience, persistence, passion to get this and go on with it, as well as everything beyond just this mental health court,” Criminal District Prosecutor Jennifer Tarbe told Eccleston during Thursday’s Court of Commissioners hearing. . “We really appreciate everything you did to make the day a reality.”
The commissioners unanimously approved a decision to establish the third specialized county court after submissions by Tarbe and the county court in Law No. 3 Judge Deborah Lennarts Wiggington, who will begin hearing the cases before the end of the year.
“This has been a dream of many in our judicial system for years, and I am honored to be the judge chosen to preside Mental Health Court,” said Wiggington. “By providing the necessary resources, treatment and judicial intervention, (it) will bring stability and success to the participants and their families.
“I am overwhelmed with the support the Tribunal has already received from community partners and I look forward to the community’s participation in the Tribunal’s success.”
Ecclestone, a former New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce major board award winner for her work in mental health, has long advocated for citizens in need of mental health services.
Eccleston was in tears after praising Tharp and when she signaled her approval of the decision. She said earlier that it was not her day but the “Red Speech Day” for the mentally disabled.
She said Wednesday of the hundreds of specialty courts across the state that now see offenders with mental health problems, drugs and alcohol receiving treatment counseling.
The Komal Veterans Treatment Tribunal was established in 2015 and presided over by Judge Charles Stephens II of Civil Court No. 2; The Challenge Court, administered by District Court Judge No. 207 Dib and Aldreeb, came two years later. Both create pathways for offenders to reach self-sufficiency and long-term sobriety.
Section 125.002 of the Texas Government Code allows a district court of commissioners to create a mental health court program for people who have been arrested or charged with a misdemeanor or felony and those whom the law enforcement agency or court suspects have mental illness or mental retardation.
Tharp said counties with populations greater than 200,000 can be required to set up mental health courts under certain conditions, recalling that Komal County is getting close to that.
Specialized courts reduced recidivism, homelessness, and days spent in county jail by providing access to services that improved mental health performance with fewer hospitalizations and lower costs.
Tarrant County was the first to establish a remedial court in 2003, where Fort Worth and surrounding cities faced increasing numbers of criminals with a long history of untreated mental illness and substance abuse.
Each year, Tharp said one in six people between the ages of 6 and 17, and one in five adults, has a mental health disorder.
Suicides have surged during the pandemic, with New Braunfels police locally responding to 17 completed suicides in 2020, with the mayor’s office responding to 27 suicides and nine attempts in the past two and a half years.
Tharp said 10 state hospitals offer adult inpatient services, with the closest being located in Kerrville, Austin and San Antonio. Domestically, there are 89 services waiting to be served but facing an average wait time of 240 days, with more than 1,000 queuing.
“Overall, 11 years is the average delay between the onset of mental illness and the start of treatment,” she said, adding that Texas ranks 50th out of 51 states, including the capital, with access to mental health care.
“This is a statistic that needs to change, and we need to change in our society,” Tharp said.
Wiggington said the goal of the Adult Court is to help participants achieve stability and self-sufficiency leading to them becoming productive and responsible citizens. The new Komal court consists of two components – the criminal track and the civil track.
The first is a five-stage pre-trial diversion program for adults accused of misdemeanour, and a multi-stage program for adults with mental illness but without associated criminal charges.
Both require frequent court appearances, active participation in the treatment of mental illness and substance abuse, and require extensive supervision and drug testing. It is up to the participants to complete the strict requirements.
Those who successfully complete the criminal track will receive a probationary sentence and accidents expunged from the records. Failure to comply leads to penalties including imprisonment.
The Civic Track is a voluntary program tailored to the mental health and/or substance abuse needs of individuals participating in a non-adversarial approach that promotes public safety and protects the due process rights of participants.
“Today is an exciting day for our community,” Tharp said. “We will be able to provide much-needed assistance and resources to individuals suffering from mental illness.
“This court will provide additional tools and resources for mental health consumers in the criminal justice system, as well as provide stability through court-ordered outpatient and inpatient mental health treatment for individuals prior to entering the criminal justice system.”
Wiggington will lead the MHC team, which screens applicants, determines participation, and determines the final verdict. They include the attorney general for the DA’s office, defense attorneys and representatives from the Centers for Mental Health Disability and Development in Hill Country, Caldwell, Comal and Hays, the Department of Community Oversight and Corrections, the New Braunfels Police Department, and the Comal County Sheriff’s Office.
Supporting agencies include the Komal County Children’s Advocacy Center; private attorneys appointed by the court; recovery work; The Komal County Bar Association and Criminal Defense Attorney; Texas Destitute Council; River City Advocacy Group; McKenna Foundation and the United Way of Komal County.
“If someone doesn’t voluntarily comply, they should be stable and they would be much better off with the Mental Health Court,” Ecclestone said. “When they are released, we will not see him again until they are caught again when they are in crisis.”
Ecclestone said some taxpayers think it’s an unnecessary expense, but she said it will save money — and lives.
“If saving money and being effective resonate with you, it ticks the box,” she said. “If it’s smart and efficient, it checks that box, and if it’s humane, it checks that box all day.
“I find that anyone will find a benefit from this – not least all of the people being served.”