Serving Children, Adults in Crisis * Jail Diversion, Reduced Recidivism, Continuum of Care Among Program Goals
Since 2004, Williamson County has taken a keen interest in mental health and has worked to advance services to its citizens while continuing to be fiscally responsible to the taxpayers.
More than 20 years ago, leaders in Williamson County recognized that a growing population in the county jail was comprised of nonviolent offenders who needed mental health assistance and intervention. To address this need, Williamson County formed the Mental Health Task Force, which was vital in identifying and addressing gaps in the continuum of care. Forming this task force required an incredible level of cooperation and willingness to acknowledge that the justice system is not the best structure for those needing mental health assistance.
“We were so fortunate to have had the cooperation of our sheriff, district attorney, county attorney, and Commissioners Court when the task force was formed,” said Kathy Pierce, who has served as the chair of the task force since its inception. “It was imperative that law enforcement agencies along with the judiciary agreed that punitive action was not always the most effective way to address those experiencing mental health crises,” Pierce added.
Although the Williamson County Mental Health Task force began with the goal of facilitating jail diversions, it continues to adapt to the needs of a rapidly growing county. Williamson County has partnered with its local mental health authority, Bluebonnet Trails Community Services (BTCS), to establish innovative projects that are a benefit to county residents.
In November 2021, BTCS began providing qualified mental health professionals (QMHP) to work with 911 call takers in the Williamson County Emergency Communications Center. These QMHPs partner with the emergency service dispatch team receiving calls on the communications floor. These professionals offer immediate assistance and resources and, in emergencies, remain on the phone with the caller until the appropriate authorities arrive. This enables call takers to quickly assess the needs and resources that should be dispatched. Whether it is the traditionally requested police, fire, or EMS dispatch, or the more specialized Crisis Intervention Team (mental health law enforcement), or BTCS’s Mobile Crisis Outreach Team (MCOT), call takers are able to dispatch what 911 callers need in that moment.
In partnership with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office and their Crisis Intervention Team, BTCS is establishing a Diversion Center. The professional staff at the center provide 24-hour rapid access to appropriate care for a person in crisis by triaging care with the law enforcement officer prior to the officer’s arrival at the center. The Diversion Center includes 23-hour crisis observation and psychiatric care while the mental health professionals locate appropriate services or placement for an individual in crisis. The Commissioners Court allocated Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for this project. Through this investment, persons are able to receive immediate care while getting law enforcement officers back on duty expeditiously to answer other calls. The Diversion Center is projected to open this month.
There are cases where incarceration is the appropriate response and the incarcerated individual needs health services; the Williamson County Commissioners Court funded a new position in the jail to serve these individuals. In addition, the jail recently welcomed a physician’s assistant (PA) medical professional. The PA will be able to provide timely access to both medical and psychiatric care, thereby reducing the cost of transporting inmates for most medical treatment.
“It is another way for us to deliver an extremely vital service that helps reduce the recidivism rate and reduces the cost of operating the jail,” shared Williamson County Sheriff Mike Gleason. “It is a more targeted approach getting people directly to the specific care they need.”
In another partnership between county departments, the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office and the Justice Center courts have added a jail-based and a court-based care coordinator that is provided through BTCS. Working in partnership with the jail and courts, these positions link inmates and justice-involved persons to medical, social, and psychiatric care in the community. Progress toward a treatment and accountability plan is reported to the courts. This program will increase appropriate jail diversions and reduce recidivism.
“The goal we are working toward is to divert people away from our jail who have mental health issues but have not committed serious or violent offenses,” explained Williamson County Commissioner Valerie Covey. “This provides better mental health care for our residents and is at a lower cost than incarceration,” said Covey, who serves as the Commissioners Court’s liaison on the Mental Health Task Force.
As Williamson County’s population grows, the need for services for all age groups grows, as well. To assist children, adolescents, and their families, BTCS is opening a 16-bed youth therapeutic respite program for youth from age 5 to 17 years. It will provide a safe environment for youth in crisis with counseling, wrap-around care, innovative therapies, care coordination, psychiatric medication management, and more. The length of stay may be as short as a few hours or as long as 30 days.
“It is a privilege to expand our partnership alongside Williamson County schools, emergency medical services, and law enforcement ensuring a coordinated 24-hour crisis response in service to children and adults experiencing a mental health crisis. We applaud the Commissioners Court for their ongoing efforts addressing the gaps in critical care for Williamson County families,” said Andrea Richardson, executive director for BTCS.
The Williamson County Commissioners Court allocated CARES Act funding for the youth respite project, which will open later this month in Round Rock.
To continue addressing the mental health needs of the county’s younger population, BTCS’s MCOT began partnering with school districts on Jan. 1 to provide mental health crisis services for students and consultation with district staff through a hotline providing 24/7 access to mental health crisis services for students in a situation that may lead to the student self-harming or harming another person.
In addition, Rock Springs, a private behavioral health hospital in Georgetown, is adding 24 children’s psychiatric hospital beds to its existing 72-bed psychiatric hospital campus. Williamson County Commissioners Court partnered with Rock Springs and allocated American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for this project. These beds target the gap in the most intensive level of care available for children experiencing acute psychiatric symptoms. The projected opening is December 2022.
The success and innovation in Williamson County can be attributed to a shared goal of addressing mental health while making it fiscally responsible for county taxpayers. Additionally, having a strong, competent, and willing local mental health authority such as BTCS makes cutting-edge programs a reality. Collaboration and open lines of communication are crucial to the success of any program, but especially programs pertaining to mental health. There are so many entities involved with mental health programs; consequently, monthly communications are vital to their success.
In addition to communication, adaptability is essential. Over the past five years, the Mental Health Task Force has invited all of the county’s municipalities, police departments, and behavioral health hospitals to join in on the mental health conversations so that every area of the county is covered with equal services and is familiar with the resources around them. Williamson County continues to look forward and find new ways to address the growing mental health concerns that all rapidly growing counties are experiencing. As a leader in mental health, Williamson County believes that assisting other counties is imperative to the health of the State of Texas and is happy to discuss any of these programs with its partner counties.
By Rachel Arnold, CPM
Executive Assistant to
Williamson County Commissioner Valerie Covey
Public Affairs Manager