Sen. John Cornyn arrived at the Galveston County Justice Center on Friday morning for a roundtable talk with local leaders and policy experts to discuss how federal mental health initiatives spearheaded by him could help Galveston County facilitate mental healthcare and meet its goals in service availability.
Included in the discussion were Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, Senior Fellow for Justice Policy at Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute Dr. Tony Fabelo, Galveston County Commissioner and Chair of the County and Judicial Criminal Justice Coordinating Advisory Council Stephen Holmes, Senior Presiding Judge for the 405th District Court and Designated Judge of the Galveston County Mental Health Court Judge Wayne Mallia, Commander of the Mental Health Division of the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office Jaime Castro and Galveston Police Chief Vernon L. Hale.
Cornyn has been active in pushing for legislation in mental health care long before the mass shooting tragedies of Santa Fe High School and the El Paso Walmart, introducing the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act in 2015 and authoring the 21st Century Cures Act signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2016.
Cornyn said that during the past few years he has realized that the United States has “lost the safety net for people in mental health crises.”
“Some of our laws make it very difficult to get access to mental health. For example, if you have somebody in your family whose an adult, it’s almost impossible to get them to comply with the doctor’s orders if they say, ‘I don’t want to,’” Cornyn said.
Cornyn said mental health has become a “chronic and pervasive challenge for our country” and the government must facilitate alternatives to the current situation of many individuals suffering from mental illness being held in jail for lack of adequate resources for their care.
Henry said devising a way to handle issues of mental illness in court is a major challenge faced by every county and parish in the country.
Henry said it was important that mental illness be talked about, treated like any other illness and steps taken to mitigate the possibilities of those suffering from mental illness being held in jail.
“I, along with every other county jail in the United States, run the worst mental healthcare facility that you could possibly run. We’d be on 60 Minutes if we weren’t the county government for running a terrible operation,” Henry said, adding that Galveston County faces the common problem of shortages in mental health care providers and bed space.
Holmes, chairman of the Judicial Criminal Justice Coordinating Advisory Council, said the county has “streamlined and organized [its] jail screening process” in relation to mental health.
Mallia, who accepted the task from Henry to create a mental health court in Galveston County, said support for the project has been overwhelming, with the commissioners’ court giving its approval unanimously. The mental health court will handle certain cases involving individuals suffering from bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. Current plans are for the mental health court to begin operation in January or February of next year.
Cornyn commended Mallia and Henry on the creation of the new court.
“I used to be a little skeptical of specialty courts, but not anymore. I mean, we have veteran’s courts, we have drug courts, we have mental health courts, and I think that’s because our that what — the issues that we have to deal with are a lot more complex than they used to be in the — maybe in the old days where all you needed judges to do was, you know, bang down a gavel and make a decision,” Cornyn said.
Castro said the county has made progress in the past on mental health despite the significant road ahead, with the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office having one of the first mental health divisions in the state of Texas and a successful program of training officers to handle situations involving individuals suffering from mental illness.
“We have a very good intake — very good intake. We have people who respond to the crisis and everything else but the services that come after that are not in place,” Castro said.
Lack of in-county services for mental health patients is a problem shared by both Galveston and Brazoria counties. Despite both counties having populations of over 300,000 and being home to cities of over 100,000, neither county has an in-patient healthcare facility or drop-off point where patients can then be transported by a shuttle service. All individuals suffering from mental illness encountered by law enforcement officials in these two counties must be transported by county personnel to facilities in Houston.
One of our biggest challenges is that we have no inpatient beds in Galveston County,” Castro said.
Hale agreed with Castro that the distance to any proper facilities was a major challenge for law enforcement within the county when a person is determined to be a danger to themselves or others. He said many subjects suffering from mental illness encountered by law enforcement in Galveston are taken to jail to ensure they are given their proper medication and the opportunity to see a mental health professional.
“The closest hospital I can go to is 50 miles away,” Hale said.
Galveston County is currently in its second year of a justice system modernization project that began after a system assessment in 2017. An infographic created for Friday’s meeting said improvements that can be made immediately are the creation of the mental health court, severely mentally ill individuals being released on personal bonds for services at a mental health authority, assisted outpatient treatment and an enhanced pretrial department.
Video of the full meeting can be seen on The Alvin Sun & Advertiser’s Facebook page.