CLAYTON, MO – August 13, 2018 –The St. Louis County Circuit Court has received a three-year, $400,000 grant from the Sidney R. Baer, Jr. Foundation to expand access to justice for civil and criminal defendants with mental illness. The grant will also be used to create a new mental health resource center in the courthouse, providing access to comprehensive services for individuals with mental illness and their families.
The concept for the mental health initiative was developed by Judge Mondonna Ghasedi and Judge Michael Burton in response to the large number of criminal, civil, domestic and family law cases in St. Louis County involving individuals with mental illness.
“Our Court is passionately committed to helping those who suffer from mental illness navigate the legal system,” Judge Ghasedi said. “That process can be confusing, costly and stressful under the best of circumstances, but for those with untreated mental health issues, it is a nearly insurmountable task. With additional resources from the Baer Foundation, we will be able to help many more litigants – and their families – get the legal, social and medical assistance they desperately need.”
Data from the Missouri Department of Mental Health and the National Institute of Mental Health suggest that as many as 114,000 residents of St. Louis County are living with serious mental illness. It is estimated that as many as half the cases seen in the Court’s criminal, civil, domestic and probate divisions involve individuals with these and other mental health diagnoses. In addition, more than half of those incarcerated in the St. Louis County Justice Center have mental health needs.
In 2017, the judges of the St. Louis County Circuit Court took the unprecedented step of establishing a Mental Health Treatment Court under the supervision of Judge Burton. It currently consists of a weekly docket for a limited number of cases involving defendants with significant mental health issues, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The Mental Health Treatment Court has been working with BJC Behavioral Health, the largest mental health care provider in the St. Louis region, to coordinate services to treat the underlying causes of behavior that results in contact with the criminal justice system.
“Prompt court intervention to help connect individuals with mental health issues with appropriate community services can reduce the likelihood of future civil and criminal litigation,” Judge Burton said. “Court intervention can dramatically improve the quality of life for these individuals while maintaining public safety, and is a better alternative than incarceration.”
The Baer Foundation grant will allow the Mental Health Treatment Court to expand its docket to include non-criminal cases for the first time. Mental health court participants often face a daunting combination of challenges, including addiction, homelessness, lack of transportation, unemployment and poor health, Judge Burton said. In addition, they frequently lack social support, are isolated and lonely.
In the coming months, a task force made up of 21st Circuit judges, court staff and behavioral health experts plans to hire a coordinator to develop and implement a blueprint for the Mental Health Center. The coordinator will also put in place a system to better identify, assess, refer and track litigants with behavioral health needs and connect them with a community services.
The Sidney R. Baer, Jr., Foundation, headquartered in St. Louis, awards grants for education, criminal justice, reintegration, clinical research, and social support for people suffering from schizophrenia. It is named in honor of St. Louisan Sidney Baer, the son of the founder of the former Stix Baer and Fuller department store, who suffered from untreated schizophrenia. He died in 2002.