How Kane County mental health court reshaped 3 lives
Casey Clark, 19, is in court for a follow-up hearing on his residential burglary conviction.
For his efforts, he's given a round of applause.
That's the way the Kane County Treatment Alternative Court -- one of 24 mental health courts in the state -- is supposed to work.
The courts are examples of an alternative sentencing program that took hold in the suburbs in the mid-2000s. Those who run the programs look for cases in which an offender's unmanaged mental illness is a major contributing factor in nonviolent crime -- even if the person doesn't know it.
"Unfortunately when they come in, a lot of the people don't want mental health treatment. We have to teach them what is a problem," said Lindsey Liddicoatt, coordinator of the Treatment Alternative Court program in Kane County. "We're opening the door and introducing them to the mental health world."
The programs aren't always successful. Roughly 16 percent of the graduates of mental health courts in the suburbs reoffend. Another 39 percent fail to complete the program.
The Daily Herald was invited to spend a day in mental health court by Associate Judge Clint Hull, who presides over it. Three offenders' stories emerged.
Applause comes from the court team -- which includes therapists, a probation coordinator, a public defender and an assistant state's attorney -- after Hull's announcement the Aurora teen has met the requirements to come off electronic home monitoring. His supporters want him to know that's a big deal.
"This is a huge difference from when you got into the program. Great job, Casey," Hull tells Clark. "You've earned the right not to have that bracelet on."
Clark has been taking his medications, attending group therapy and testing negative for illegal drugs -- all stabilizing elements in the life of the teen who has struggled with ADHD and bipolar disorder and who admits, "I made wrong decisions about having weapons."
In court wearing a Duke Blue Devils sweatshirt and smiling widely, Clark said he's focusing on coping strategies he's learning in group therapy.
"It feels like I'm taking a big step and I'm moving forward," he said.
Frequent court appearances, medication, therapy, even help attaining employment and housing are staples of this mental health court.
Participants wind up in the program by pleading guilty to a felony and being placed on two years' probation, Hull says. They must be approved by the state's attorney's office, found to have a mental illness by the county's diagnostic center, and connected with a treatment provider that can meet their needs.
It's all in an effort to keep people with mental illnesses out of jail, help them avoid future crimes and teach them to manage their mental conditions, Liddicoatt said.
"Our hope is that they never come in contact with the criminal justice system again," she said.
Clark's hopes are similar. He'd like to live independently and find a job at a restaurant or working on cars.
"I'm hoping to learn how to live without needing any help or anything," he said.
Elisu isn't argumentative when she steps before Judge Hull. That's progress.
"I don't know why I was fighting with you guys in the beginning," she tells the court team during her weekly status hearing.
Elisu, 49, of Elgin, says the most important thing she's learned since coming to mental health court after an August 2014 retail theft charge is how to ask for help when "life gets to a point where I ain't dealing with it effectively."
Hull, she said, "was the first judge to talk to me and not at me."
She's gotten the message: Participate in court-ordered treatment, take medications as directed and stay off illegal drugs, and she could gain more freedom and fewer court appearances, she remembers Hull explaining. Don't show for group sessions at the Ecker Center for Mental Health in Elgin, skip prescribed pills and get high, and there will be consequences, he told her.
Hull's courtroom style is an illustration of procedural justice, a common approach taken in mental health courts to help participants understand the relationship between freedom, responsibility and control, said Illinois Second District Appellate Judge Kathryn Zenoff, who led an Illinois Supreme Court committee on justice and mental health planning.
"The judge will allow the participant to have a voice," Zenoff said. "Even if there's a sanction, the participant can be heard with respect to that sanction and trusts the judge will impose something fair and warranted."
Elisu says she has bipolar disorder and knows she struggles to communicate. But she's seeing the value of listening to Hull and following the court's orders.
"In the beginning, I fought with everyone, but I asked for help and I'm getting it," Elisu said. "I feel like I ask for what I need and it's being provided."
What Elisu needs, she said, is realistic advice on how to deal with scenarios like issues with a leaky roof at her apartment or a search for a new place to live. She said she's getting it from her mandated group sessions at the Ecker Center, where she's learning "to live with the world the way so to speak 'normal' people would -- that is instead of doing something bad, to just survive."
In court, Hull agrees.
"You're treating everyone with respect," he tells Elisu. "It's going very well."
She wound up in mental health court because of a retail theft charge in January 2014. Now Sotelo, 39, of Elgin, doesn't want to leave.
Therapy ordered through the court has helped her understand her turbulent past and the effects the trauma is having on her present.
"I didn't know what was domestic violence or abuse," she said.
But she learned what constitutes abusive behavior and got herself out of a bad relationship. Now she's learning how to solve problems, how to socialize and how to avoid relapses of the depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that she says she's known about for 10 years.
With a history of mental illness, Sotelo said she wanted to join Treatment Alternative Court as a way to get help.
"I was really hoping they would accept me," she said.
Professionals at the county's diagnostic center can use some of nearly 100 tests to determine a prospective participant's mental state, said Michael Oliverio, a staff psychologist. Assessment data helps select the treatment each participant needs.
Many start by being assigned to a residential facility such as Gateway Foundation Alcohol & Drug Treatment in Aurora. Later, they can step down to daily, weekly or monthly visits to a therapist who can teach how to cope with the mental disorder and help with substance abuse problems, which often occur hand-in-hand with mental illness.
"In the process of doing what they have to do, they learn how much better they feel, how much more productive they are, how much better they're getting along with their families and how they're able to get jobs," said Nancy Connelly, clinical supervisor of one of Gateway's residential units. "It's a wonderful process to see."
But two years is the maximum mental health court sentence in Kane County. Graduating some participants, Hull said, allows the court to pull in new ones who could benefit from learning to manage their mental conditions and avoid criminal behavior. Some, he acknowledges, could have benefited from more time. Sotelo, due to graduate next month, said she's one of them.
"This place really helps you out in so many forms," Sotelo said. "I'm scared to leave."
Mental health courts: By the numbersCook County 286 graduates, including 16 Northwest suburban offenders from 3rd District court, Rolling Meadows; 307 failed to complete program, including 7 from 3rd District
DuPage County 439 graduates; 136 failed to complete program
Kane County 38 graduates; 41 failed to complete program
Lake County 57 graduates; 62 failed to complete program
McHenry County 84 graduates; 35 failed to complete program (between 2011 and 2015)
Will County 30 graduates; 19 failed to complete program
Sources: Cook and Will counties state's attorney's offices; DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry county court officials