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St. Joseph County 911 Center to start sending some mental health calls to Oaklawn team this October

Members of the public share ideas on how to improve mental health crisis response procedures during a Sept. 7 community action group meeting in South Bend.
Jakob Lazzaro
/
WVPE
Members of the public share ideas on how to improve mental health crisis response procedures during a Sept. 7 community action group meeting in South Bend.

The St. Joseph County 911 center plans to start forwarding some mental health calls to the crisis response team operated by Oaklawn next month.

The announcement came during a Tuesday community action group meeting where members of the public shared ideas on how to improve mental health crisis response procedures.

The South Bend forum was the latest in a series of conversations around policing and mental health following the July death of Dante Kittrell, who was in the midst of a mental health crisis and appeared to be holding a handgun when he was shot and killed by South Bend Police Department officers.

The shooting was ruled justified late last month following an investigation by the St. Joseph County and Mishawaka police departments. But Kittrell’s death has sparked outrage from activists and calls for a citywide mental health crisis response system to be put in place.

Oaklawn currently operates a pilot mental health crisis response team, which began responding to calls this spring.

John Horsley, the organization’s vice president of adult services, said they’re taking 60 to 80 calls and sending the team out five to 15 times a week on average — sometimes on their own, and other times in conjunction with the South Bend Police Department, the St. Joseph County Police Department and the South Bend Fire Department.

But the team’s hours are currently limited.

“We realize that Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. is not going to cut it — we get it,” Horsley said. “It takes time to build these programs and make them effective.”

Challenges include finding staff and developing experience in providing crisis response services, but Horsley said Oakland plans to expand the team’s evening hours to 8 p.m. this fall. By March of next year, Oaklawn hopes to have a 24/7, fully staffed crisis response unit.

Another change, however, is coming next month. Starting Oct. 3, the St. Joseph County 911 center will start forwarding mental health calls where the person is not an immediate danger to themselves or others to the Oaklawn team.

“Folks in mental health crises don’t belong in our hospitals and don’t belong in our jails,” 911 center deputy director of operations Nancy Lockhart said. “Let’s give them the help they truly need.”

After hours, Lockhart said calls will be forwarded to the national 988 mental health hotline — but the long-term plan is to have a 24/7 mental health counselor on staff to guide and coordinate those efforts.

“There’s some people that don’t need a police response, or a fire truck or an ambulance,” Lockhart said. “What they need is kind, compassionate care from somebody who can give them that. 911 dispatchers aren't trained for that level of care.”

St. Joseph County Department of Health Officer Dr. Bob Einterz said historically, mental health crises that couldn’t be managed in the field either went to the emergency room or to jail.

But he said that’s not always appropriate. Instead, there needs to be a third place — a 23-hour behavioral crisis facility staffed by trained mental health professionals.

St. Joseph County has committed $2.66 million in American Rescue Plan dollars to developing such a facility, which will be housed in Memorial Hospital’s Epworth Center in downtown South Bend.

But Einterz and other officials said a long-term funding commitment for mental health care is needed at the city, county and state level.

During the meeting, community members said they wanted to see a 24/7, integrated system of mental health services that work together and follow up on people in crisis from the time a call is made until treatment.

Other ideas included broader education and training for police officers on mental health issues, finally getting the city’s community police review board up and running and, when possible, making sure family and community members who have relationships with people in crisis are brought in as part of the response.

One attendee was Kittrell's mother, Marcia. She asked Mayor James Mueller why police had not allowed her to speak with her son — she said the two had code words they could use to communicate in times of crisis.

In response, Mueller urged those present to watch the body camera video of the encounter and said that officers on scene decided allowing Marcia to speak with Dante would have escalated the situation. Dante was asked if there was a family member he would like to speak with, and responded with a string of expletives.

But Marcia stood up during Mueller's response, shook her head, and walked out of the room.

Mueller said the feedback from the community action group meeting would be incorporated into the existing plans and that another forum will be held within the next few months.

Contact Jakob at jlazzaro@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.

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Jakob Lazzaro comes to Indiana from Chicago, where he graduated from Northwestern University in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and a double major in History. Before joining WVPE, he wrote NPR's Source of the Week e-mail newsletter, and previously worked for CalMatters, Pittsburgh's 90.5 WESA and North by Northwestern.