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‘Everybody’s the winner’: A look inside the Kentville Court Monitored Mental Health Program

The Kentville courthouse.
The Kentville courthouse. - Kirk Starratt

KENTVILLE, NS - “How are you today?” the judge asks.

“Good, sir,” a participant in the voluntary Court Monitored Mental Health Program (CMMHP) responds.

“That’s good…I just wanted to say how pleased I am that you’re doing so well and you’re engaged in the program, and that’s really good. And I understand that you’re going to the gym and keeping healthy. That’s really good and I’m really, really pleased with you and we’ll see you in two weeks’ time,” Judge Alan Tufts said.

Another participant who is newly enrolled in the CMMHP is called before the judge.

“Welcome into the program. I think everybody agrees that this is a good fit for you and you’ll benefit from this,” Tufts said.

“Thank you, your honour,” the woman responds.

A participant who missed an appointment since his last court appearance is called before the judge.

“We need a commitment from you, OK? We’ve had these discussions before and I know that you’re earnest about this and I’m sure there are all kinds of explanations of why you’re not making your commitments. But, the bottom line is, you have to be in the program to be in the program,” Tufts said.

The participant agreed to meet with the judge at the courthouse the following week before he’s sent to make up for the appointment he missed. The judge said this was “kind of like a little test” of the participant’s level of commitment.

“If you’re not here, then some of the folks are going to be asking you to leave the program and I don’t want to do that,” Tufts said.

Another participant who is performing well in the program was commended for her efforts.

“You’re doing very well, and we’re very, very pleased, and you should be pleased…you should be very proud of yourself,” Tufts said.

These interactions are typical of what is heard during a CMMHP session, held every second Wednesday at the Kentville courthouse. Prior to the open court session, the program team meets to discuss the progress of participants. There are currently five enrolled and three pending applications. The program has had 10 graduates since its inception in May 2014.

The CMMHP in Kentville serves Kings and West Hants and there is a mental health court in Dartmouth that serves the Halifax Regional Municipality. One major difference is that the CMMHP is operating with existing resources while funding and other resources are specifically allocated for the Dartmouth mental health court.

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Greater access in the works

Tufts, an associate chief judge of the Provincial Court of Nova Scotia, said the provincial government will need to decide whether or not mental health court access is expanded across Nova Scotia, as it involves a deployment of resources. However, he believes that the province’s chief judge would support assigning judges to therapeutic courts in other areas of Nova Scotia.

Although the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia has been providing assistance to some participants in outlying communities, Tufts said running a rural program is difficult because of the distances involved and a lack of transportation.

He also points out that if there were other rural programs in the district, services could be shared to take advantage of economies of scale.

Western region chief Crown attorney Ingrid Brodie serves on a provincial committee exploring the possible expansion of mental health court programming. She said the committee, which has a one-year mandate, began meeting monthly in September and is showing great progress.

“I think one of the key learnings we’ve had outside metropolitan areas is that you have to have the support of a broad range of professionals working together and building consensus to all put in their services to make a program work, and that it’s a different way of operating than our traditional courts,” Brodie said.

Nova Scotia Health Authority Mental Health and Addiction Services manager Valerie Davis said the provincial committee is also looking at outcomes, which have been positive through the CMMHP.

“The purpose of the provincial working group is to ensure that those best practices are integrated into any programs that are expanded throughout the province so that the outcomes are positive in other places as well,” Davis said.

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Participants take responsibility

Tufts said those enrolled in the CMMHP either plead guilty to the charges that bring them before the court or otherwise take responsibility for their conduct, so the presumption of innocence has been set aside.

He said the program deals with people who are essentially in a sentencing regime. The court’s responsibility is to ensure that there is a fair result for the person, that he or she is treated according to law and that the individual’s rights are respected.

At the same time, the court must ensure that the public’s interest is respected as well.

Tufts said the aim of the program is to treat participants with dignity and help them through their health challenges. If underlying issues are addressed, participants aren’t going to come into contact with the law, which is a betterment for the individual and the community.

“I tell people when they come in here that they’re going to be treated, they’re going to feel healthier, but at the same time they’re going to improve the community and they’re going to help the lives of the people who are around them and who are affected by their illness. So, everybody’s the winner and that’s kind of what we’re trying to do here,” Tufts said.

Brodie said one of the goals of the CMMHP is to look at an individual holistically, recognizing that a mental health issue has affected his or her behaviour in the community.

One revelation she’s had about the program is that there has been “destigmatizing” by virtue of the CMMHP’s existence. Brodie said community members are recognizing that individuals do come into contact with the law because of underlying health issues that need to be addressed.

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Benefits to collaborative approach

Brodie said the CMMHP team has recognized since coming together, they had all been working in their separate silos with some of the same people in the past but not coordinating efforts. Everyone was trying their best to lead to positive outcomes for individuals, their families and the community. She said the cumulative impact of their efforts being coordinated has surprised them.

Tufts said there have always been people with mental health issues coming into contact with the law and it’s been a very difficult situation. Those working in the system recognized that there had to be a better way. The CMMHP provides a way to treat and deal with these individuals in the criminal justice system in a more appropriate manner.

Nova Scotia Health Authority and West Hants Community Mental Health occupational therapist Kerry Sutherland said her experience with the CMMHP has been refreshing. The health and justice departments have been very much in their own silos in the past. By working together collaboratively, it’s enabled the departments to help individuals with mental health issues get one step closer to recovery, which has a broader positive impact on the community and society.

Brodie said that, initially, the team was learning together and didn’t want to take on the toughest or most complex cases. As they’ve learned to work together and collaborate they’ve progressed, becoming more capable of dealing with more complex cases that perhaps involve more serious offences. She said the Dartmouth mental health court has served as a great resource.

Nova Scotia Health Authority mental health nurse and Kings County case manager Jennifer Breen said that, for her, the program offers choice for clients, which leads to opportunity that they may not have felt they had before. This can lead to positive outcomes at the end, such as criminal charges being withdrawn, so these individuals don’t have to carry additional stigma.

Did you know?

For more information on the CMMHP or to make a referral, call the Kentville courthouse at 902-679-6070.

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