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Counties Learn From Each Other as VACo Visits Fairfax County’s Diversion Programs

Fairfax County Chairman Jeff McKay, Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid, and VACo President Meg Bohmke, as well as representatives from Arlington County, the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board, the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office, and VACo visited with participants in the Striving to Achieve Recovery program.  More details about Fairfax County’s diversion programs are below.

Collaboration and partnerships – among county agencies and local governments – were the watchwords as Fairfax County hosted VACo President Meg Bohmke, representatives from Arlington County, the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board, and VACo for a tour of the County’s Diversion First programs on September 8.  Fairfax County launched this effort, which seeks to offer alternatives to criminal justice system involvement for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, or developmental disabilities, in 2015.  The County’s programs are offered through partnerships among County law enforcement agencies, the human services system, and the judiciary, and employ the Sequential Intercept Model, which helps communities to identify resources and services to divert individuals away from the criminal justice system into treatment.

Throughout the day, County leaders emphasized that they used what they learned from other jurisdictions as they developed their programs and offered to share what they have learned along the way with counties that are interested in undertaking similar efforts.  Fairfax County Chairman Jeff McKay explained that Diversion First has developed through an “evolution” over time, and suggested that counties could implement individual components based on community needs rather than the entire continuum of services at once.  He underscored the value of the County’s efforts, explaining that in addition to the moral imperative of caring for vulnerable members of the community, diversion programs make economic sense.  “We see this program as an investment more than an expense,” he said, citing the importance of helping people to remain in the community rather than in jails and reducing the stress on law enforcement resources that is often caused by individuals with behavioral health needs cycling in and out of criminal justice system involvement.

The day began with briefings and a tour of the Sharon Bulova Center for Community Health, which houses the Merrifield Crisis Response Center, the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board’s emergency and crisis services (as well as outpatient services), and Neighborhood Health (a federally qualified health center), among other services.  Explaining the history of the Diversion First effort and the collaboration among county agencies, former Fairfax County Supervisor John Cook, who worked extensively to launch Diversion First and continues to serve on an advisory group of community stakeholders, said, “Diversion is not a program – it’s more of a philosophy that goes across programs.”

Representatives from the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board shared information on the crisis services offered on-site, including a 24/7 crisis clinic that conducts assessments and referrals, as well as mobile crisis teams; additional capacity to stabilize individuals in crisis is being developed as the CSB navigates challenges in hiring nursing staff and is planned to be implemented later this year.  Representatives from the Sheriff’s Office and the Fairfax County Police Department discussed their Crisis Intervention Team training and the partnership between the two departments, which enables specially trained deputies and police officers to assist their colleagues with de-escalation of individuals in crisis and navigation of the Emergency Custody Order and Temporary Detention Order processes.  The County’s co-responder program enables a CSB clinician to respond to a call for service alongside a County police officer, which has enabled the majority of such calls to be resolved without the need for hospitalization.

Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid hosted briefings for the group at the Adult Detention Center about programs offered within the jail as well as her office’s work to support incarcerated individuals as they return to the community.  CSB staff working within the jail provide behavioral health screening and treatment to incarcerated individuals, and the jail also offers an evidence-based program of medication for addiction treatment – a program cited in journalist Beth Macy’s recent book, Raising Lazarus.  A jail diversion team works with individuals in the community who have serious mental illness and have been involved with the criminal justice system to ensure their behavioral health needs are met.  Sheriff Kincaid followed these briefings with a moving discussion with participants in the jail’s Striving to Achieve Recovery (STAR) program, which is a voluntary, structured addiction recovery program led by peer recovery specialists; Sheriff Kincaid explained that the program is modeled on a similar program offered in Chesterfield County’s jail.  Participants testified to the transformative power of a community focused on recovery and the coping skills and self-knowledge they attained through their journey through the program.

The day concluded with a presentation from Chief Circuit Court Judge Penney S. Azcarate and General District Court Probation Supervisor Shawn Lherisse about the involvement of the judiciary in diversion efforts through the creation of a specialty behavioral health docket, in addition to drug court.  Judge Azcarate previously led the effort to create the state’s first Veterans Treatment Docket, which has evolved over time to offer programming for veterans with more significant clinical treatment needs as well as a shorter, less intensive program for veterans with a lower likelihood of recidivism.  These specialized dockets connect participants to treatment and resources under the supervision of the court, with the goal of avoiding future involvement with the criminal justice system.

County leaders continue to look for ways to improve and enhance Diversion First based on discussions with the community and the experiences of other localities.  As Sheriff Kincaid said, “We don’t rest on our laurels – we continue to look for better ways of doing business.”  An overview of recent successes and future plans may be found in the Diversion First 2021 Annual Report; additional materials may be found on the Diversion First webpage.  VACo extends its appreciation to Fairfax County’s leadership and staff for arranging the tour and their willingness to share their experiences and support other counties.

VACo Contact:  Katie Boyle

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