Douglas County leaders tour San Antonio mental health facilities

April 9, 2015. The Lawrence Journal-World.

— Various leaders from Lawrence and Douglas County toured a nationally respected mental wellness and homeless shelter campus here Thursday as stakeholders continue collecting information on a proposed project to provide better resources to some Douglas County residents who run afoul of the law.

Local government, law enforcement and health care officials, among others, spent more than nine hours learning about The Center for Health Care Services’ jail diversion program and surrounding facilities, which are based in San Antonio and serve the rest of Bexar County.

The jail diversion program helps nonviolent individuals with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems receive proper care for their conditions, rather than being jailed. Nationwide, it is regarded as a model program of its kind and has been given a Gold Achievement Award by the American Psychiatric Association, among other accolades.

In response to rising inmate populations and a greater demand to provide mental health care services to inmates, Douglas County is currently studying how to best expand its jail and construct a separate facility to assist those with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems.

The trip was organized by Justice Matters, a group of religious leaders who focus on justice issues.

Nearly 20 officials from the Lawrence area made the trip, including Lawrence vice mayor Jeremy Farmer; police chief Tarik Khatib; municipal court judge Scott Miller; Lawrence Community Shelter CEO Brian Blevins; Lawrence Memorial Hospital CEO Gene Meyer; county commissioners Nancy Thellman and Mike Gaughan; county administrator Craig Weinaug; District Attorney Charles Branson; Capt. Eric Spurling of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department; and several members of Justice Matters. More officials, including Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern, are expected to tour the facility in the coming weeks.

They spent most of Thursday at a facility called the Restoration Center. There, law enforcement officers from all over Bexar County can drop off individuals who are either inebriated or having a mental health crisis to rest or receive varying degrees of care.

Leon Evans, the CEO of CHCS, said 2,300 people are diverted there monthly, and anyone is welcome to check themselves in at any time of day. He said the program saves the city and county governments nearly $10 million a year in jailing and emergency room costs.

According to data provided by CHCS, Bexar County had the lowest recidivism rate in Texas in 2012, at 6.6 percent. The statewide average is 17.6 percent.

The Restoration Center is also next door to a separate 37-acre campus, called the Haven for Hope, that houses a homeless shelter and offices for more than 30 agencies — also toured by the Douglas County group.

Officials listened to nearly a dozen presentations, describing how various programs function and how the local health care, judicial and law enforcement institutions all collaborated in the early 2000s to form the jail diversion program.

Weinaug said he was happy that representatives from so many Douglas County institutions were able to make the trip. He said Douglas County would “never” be able to replicate the extensive Bexar County program, but that it could influence upcoming designs and proposals for the Douglas County project.

Officials will wrap things up with another three hours of meetings Friday.

Douglas County delegation to travel to San Antonio to look at ways to reduce jail time for mentally ill

March 22, 2015. The Lawrence Journal-World.

A delegation of Douglas County leaders will travel to San Antonio next month to examine how that community has changed its law enforcement and judicial systems to cut down on the number of mentally ill defendants that end up in jail.

A Lawrence faith-based group, Justice Matters, has organized the trip, and hopes that seeing the system in Bexar County, Texas, will be useful as Douglas County leaders consider a jail expansion project that could cost taxpayers $20 million or more.

“What we’re really hoping is that the community can think about a better way to provide mental health services,” said John McDermott, a pastor at Morning Star Church and co-president of the Justice Matters organization. “We know the economics of providing good mental health care are much more efficient than the costs of incarceration.”

Thus far, 11 city, county, health care, judicial and law enforcement officials have agreed to make the trip to San Antonio for a day-and-a-half tour on April 9-10. They include:

• Lawrence Police Chief Tarik Khatib;

• Lawrence Memorial Hospital CEO Gene Meyer;

• County Commissioner Mike Gaughan;

• County Commissioner Nancy Thellman;

• County Administrator Craig Weinaug;

• Lawrence Community Shelter Director Brian Blevins;

• District Attorney Charles Branson

• Sheriff’s Department Capt. Eric Spurling;

• Municipal Court Judge Scott Miller;

• Bert Nash CEO David Johnson;

• City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer.

Ben MacConnell, lead organizer for the Justice Matter group, said the system in San Antonio includes law enforcement officers who have received special training in mental health, a judicial system that has created diversion/treatment programs for non-violent mentally ill defendants, and a health care system that can provide the appropriate treatments.

“What we already have heard from leaders there is that the secret to making a system work is full investment and collaboration between all the key players in mental health, law enforcement and the judicial system,” MacConnell said. “Once you get the collaborative spirit going, that is when the program becomes effective.”

Justice Matters, a collaboration of 21 Lawrence congregations, has been studying mental health issues for several months, MacConnell said. The group worked throughout 2014 to come up with three community goals that it wanted to work toward. Improving mental health care, increasing the accessibility of affordable housing, and addressing childhood trauma were the issues the group chose.

In addition to the local leaders that have committed to the trip, MacConnell said six members of the Justice Matters group also will go to San Antonio. MacConnell said the group also is hoping a judge from the Douglas County District Court will be able to make the trip.

Lawrence religious organizations joining to ‘go upstream’

February 8, 2015. The Lawrence Journal-World.

The Rev. Verdell Taylor explains the difference between mercy and justice with a fable.

In it, a man goes to the river every day and rescues a baby who has drifted downstream in a basket, said Taylor, of St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church. Taylor calls that an act of mercy. Justice would involve going up river to determine the cause and fixing the problem.

Taylor said Justice Matters, a group of 22 faith organizations including Christian, Islamic and Jewish communities, is “going upstream” in Lawrence, aiming to define the most significant injustices and looking for solutions to their root causes.

Members of Justice Matters' executive committee discuss budgetary items and research updates. Pictured are, clockwise from lower left, Rev. Mary Newberg Gale of First Presbyterian Church, Rev. Randall Weinkauf of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Rev. Justin Jenkins of Velocity Church, Rev. Verdell Taylor of St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church, organizer Ben MacConnell, Father Mike Scully of St. John of the Evangelist Church, Rev. John McDermott of Morning Star Church and Rev. Kathy Williams of First United Methodist Church.

Rev. Mary Newberg Gale, of First Presbyterian Church, said that most congregations do well at providing mercy through food drives and soup kitchens, but if justice were achieved, there would be no need for those services.

“We want to tackle those issues that leave people in a position that we are acting mercifully toward them,” Newberg Gale said. “We are addressing the systematic root causes.”

Newberg Gale said though the group’s members often have starkly different standpoints on specific aspects of religion, it is easy to cut through the divisive factors to work together toward a common goal.

In 2013, local faith leaders began talking with national organization,Direct Action and Resource Center, or DART, about whether they might be able to make a difference, Taylor said. They then formed Justice Matters in March.

National group

DART, founded by former Peace Corps member John Calkins and led by Rev. John Aeschbury, both of Florida, is a national network of “grassroots organizers” who use a listening, research and assembly approach to bring systemic change, according to the organization’s website. Currently, there are 20 groups affiliated with DART in Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio, South Carolina and Virginia.

Justice Matters recently finished the first phase of its six-month research process. Last fall, the group asked about 1,000 congregation and community members questions such as “What keeps you up at night?” and “What would a just Lawrence look like?”

Newberg Gale said the in-depth process would increase the likelihood of their proposals’ success.

“Often we see something happening and we already see what the solution should be,” Newberg Gale said. “(Justice Matters) spends time to allow the conversations with professionals and those affected and we do that to a real depth.”

Through the process, the group found 12 common themes, and members of the public in November narrowed the list down to three issues: mental health, affordable housing and children’s issues.

Talking with experts

The group is now in the solution research phase, speaking with local experts and community leaders and reviewing published studies. Justice Matters members have split into three groups, each focusing on one issue. So far, the committees have met with about 35 professionals, including Kansas University professors, organization executives and city employees.

KU professor of Social Work Terri Friedline consulted with Justice Matters about children’s issues. Friedline said she thought the group’s intent was admirable.

“We need more people and groups committed to bringing justice and change into the world to make it a better, safer place for future generations,” Friedline said. “I was glad to be a small part of the group committed to those endeavors.”

While researching affordable housing, the group recently consulted Willow Domestic Violence Shelter executive director Joan Schultz, who said Justice Matters members are “asking all the right questions.”

“They’re not shying away from solutions,” Schultz said. “It’s an enormous undertaking and very needed.”

City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer said that to his knowledge, the group has not met with city commissioners, but he is “looking forward to hearing their reports” as he and city staff research housing policies in other cities.

“I hope that (the reports) coincide with some work that I’m doing on the affordable housing issue,” Farmer said.

Over the next few months, the Justice Matters committees will narrow the broader issues to a few approachable problems, group leaders said. They’ll then come up with systematic changes they say will have long-term impact.

“A just Lawrence will feel fair to all people,” Taylor said. “(Injustice) is there, it’s all around us, and everybody is affected by it.”

The Topeka experience

The group plans to present its findings and suggestions to decision makers, who could include city commissioners, business owners, landlords, organizations or other relevant officials, at the Lied Center May 7. DART employee and Justice Matters organizer Ben MacConnell said the goal is to have 2,000 people at the event.

DART’s other Kansas affiliate, Topeka’s “Justice and Unity Ministry Project,” saw controversy in 2014 at a similar event at which the group sought change with Topeka schools’ Superintendent Julie Ford. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported members wore hardhats and told Ford only to answer “yes” or “no” to questions about implementing Communities in Schools programs in 10 elementary schools.

The 1,000-person “tense” assembly ultimately ended prematurely, with Ford insisting there weren’t funds for their proposal, the Capital-Journal reported. Ford said she thought the event would include JUMP committing to raising money for Communities in Schools, which provides support for students and families to help kids stay in school and achieve.

MacConnell said JUMP members met with Ford before the assembly and were taken aback by her public stance. In the end, the group’s efforts paid off, MacConnell said, when Topeka put the Communities in Schools program in three elementary schools.

Justice Matters co-president and Morning Star Church pastor John McDermott said that, in light of the Topeka group’s assembly, the Lawrence DART affiliate is “going to do (their) very best to reach an agreement (with relevant decision makers) before” their public gathering.

Lawrence Justice Ministry to begin citywide Listening Process on Monday

September 21, 2014. Lawrence Journal-World.

A group of 20 local congregations trying to make Lawrence a more socially just community will soon begin listening sessions to determine how to do that.

The Lawrence Justice Ministry will kick off a six-month listening process Monday that will consist of small-group meetings in people’s homes, as well of canvassing of neighborhoods, to pinpoint which social-justice issues the group should work to solve. The ministry hopes to hear from at least 1,500 residents.

“I think the cool thing is we’re having 150 or more home meetings taking place in the course of just six weeks,” said the Rev. Justin Jenkins of Velocity Church. “I don’t know that there has ever before been an opportunity like that to hear the issues people are concerned about in our city.”

From the listening process, the group plans to identity common themes before voting on the issues it will tackle. The group will then come up with specific proposals over the winter that will be made public in May. The pastors say they hope to make systemic changes that go beyond the types of short-term mercy ministries, such as food pantries and clothing drives, they offer now.

“What makes you angry? What keeps you up at night? What would a just city look like in Lawrence?” said the Rev. Matt Sturtevant of First Baptist Church, speaking about the types of questions that will be asked at the small-group meetings.

The Rev. Verdell Taylor of St. Luke AME Church said one of the best things about the ministry is the diversity of faiths represented, which he believes will help it identify those social problems that affect the largest percentage of people in Lawrence.

“Hopefully we can take a look at things that appear to be different but are really the same,” he said, “and we’ll be able to come up with something that reflects all faith groups.”

Lawrence congregations move forward with justice ministry

May 5, 2014. Lawrence Journal-World.

What could happen if Lawrence were a city for justice?

That’s what Justin Jenkins, pastor at Velocity Church, asked at a recent meeting of local religious leaders who have come together to make Lawrence what they describe as a more socially just community.

The group, which had its orientation in March, includes leaders from 22 local congregations who have been gathering monthly to discuss what the tentatively titled Lawrence Justice Ministry might look like. This month, several of the clergy members will be giving “City on a Hill” sermons in which they will outline to their congregations what the scriptures say about social justice.

The religious leaders hope the ministry can help show the difference between mercy and justice. Mercy is what many of the congregations already do — feed the hungry, house the homeless. Justice, they say, means transforming the system so those needs no longer exist.

“I can imagine a day that we don’t need LINK (the Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen) anymore, that we don’t need the shelter anymore, that we don’t need Family Promise anymore,” said Matt Sturtevant, pastor at First Baptist Church.

Added Jenkins: “There’s a difference between first aid, which is to save someone’s life, and actually treating the disease, which is a long-term solution.”

“It’s about looking at the causes instead of just the effects,” said John McDermott, pastor at Morning Star Christian Church.

The group started last year after the faith leaders began talking about whether they might be able to make a difference in solving injustices. Congregations have been coming together in Lawrence and elsewhere across the U.S. for years — during the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, for instance — but this is the first time locally there has been this large of a unified effort focused on transformative justice, the group says.

The ministry plans to start a listening process in the fall to identify the major social injustices in Lawrence, with community meetings open to the public. In early 2015, they will decide on the issue or issues most important to Lawrencians and begin working on solutions.

“We believe that having justice is a religious obligation,” said Moussa Elbayoumy, director of the Islamic Center of Lawrence.