Mental Health: Polk County's Problem Solving Court doles out help instead of jail time

·11 min read
Polk County Judge David Stamey talks with a veteran during a hearing in a Veterans Treatment Court before County Judge David Stamey in Bartow Fl. Wednesday August 18 2021. The veterans court is an alternative program as part of the substance use and Behavioral Health Specialty Program in the Problem Solving Court. ERNST PETERS/ THE LEDGER
Polk County Judge David Stamey talks with a veteran during a hearing in a Veterans Treatment Court before County Judge David Stamey in Bartow Fl. Wednesday August 18 2021. The veterans court is an alternative program as part of the substance use and Behavioral Health Specialty Program in the Problem Solving Court. ERNST PETERS/ THE LEDGER

BARTOW — Marcus Andrew, 52, stood in front of Circuit Court Judge David Stamey on a Wednesday morning in late August for his weekly check-in following an arrest for multiple driving offenses, including having an open container of alcohol.

“As far as I can tell, you’re doing really well,” program specialist Ashley Smith told Andrew and the judge.

Stamey asked Andrew if there was anything on his mind – a question he asked all the defendants before him that day.

“Keep up the good work,” the judge told Andrew. The Ledger is not using his surname because of issues with a former spouse.

Andrew wasn’t on trial. He was one of nearly 20 defendants that day, facing drug, alcohol, or other non-violent charges, participating in Polk County’s Problem Solving Court. The special subset of the Polk County court system aims to help people with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Like Andrew, some are veterans. Many have had traumatic experiences or sustained life-changing injuries. Andrew served in the U.S. Army from January 1989 to October 1999, stationed in Saudi Arabia at King Fahad Airport during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Andrew owns a construction company and has two grown children.

“I’m doing much better,” Andrew said in a courthouse hallway, his mentor, Jim Guth, beside him. “The resources that makes you have somebody like Mr. Guth ... that know the ropes, know how to guide you to mental counseling, the assessments. There’s not one thing I needed that I haven't been able to do.”

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Behavioral Health Court

Part of Problem Solving Court is Behavioral Health Court, which helps clients “reconnect the threads of trust and confidence... lost through years of untreated mental health issues,” the program’s website states.

The program started in 2008 and helps participants:

• Get counseling;

• Obtain training and services for people with developmental disorders;

• Stabilize so they can help manage their needs;

• Obtain legal advocacy;

• Utilize relationships between the court, behavioral health providers, and other support services;

• Reduce jail time;

• Be monitored through each step of the program;

• And develop connections with treatment services to reduce recidivism.

Nancy Bush is a former probation officer and has worked as a case manager since the program’s inception to help guide people like Andrew. Her care for the people in the program has earned her the nickname “Mama Bear.”

“We're helping him to successfully go through the program, going to the Vet Center for his treatment, connecting him with veterans’ services,” Bush said. “We're just generally there for them to encourage them. We talk to them about their issues. Sometimes we talk to probation officers. We help them if they have probation issues. We're just a go between.”

Stamey hears Problem Solving Court cases every Wednesday in courtroom 6A. Participants are chosen based on whether case managers and prosecutors think they would be a good candidate. They receive a plan that outlines actions they need to take, including staying off drugs and alcohol, going to counseling, and attending 12-step-program meetings, which they must document. They are required to appear more frequently in court than regular defendants - at first weekly and then every other week as they progress - and undergo a minimum twice-weekly drug testing – sometimes more frequently.

Clients who need in-patient or out-patient services are sent to one of several care facilities:

• Florida Center in Avon Park, which treats both mental health and addictions;

• Tri-County's New Beginnings, which has separate facilities for men and women;

• Peace River Center;

• ACTs for in-patient care, which treats all residents and has special veterans programs;

• SUDs for substance use disorder for veterans;

• Steps to Recovery in Pasco County for veterans;

• And White Sands Alcohol and Drug Rehab in Plant City for veterans.

Stamey receives a progress report on each client and asks questions about their progress, their lives, and discusses any concerns.

“If you are doing well, you will be encouraged to continue with the program and to work with your treatment provider to successfully complete the terms of your individualized plan,” the program’s website reads. “If you are not doing well, you will attend a clinical staffing prior to your court hearing to address progress and determine recommendations which will be presented to the judge in court.”

Clients must also report any drugs prescribed by a doctor or mental health care professional to the court.

The goal is for them to be successful and remain in the program, and mentors and case managers work with them to ensure accountability, but also to understand that mistakes are made. Participants can be terminated from the program for continuous issues, including:

• Violence or threats of any kind to staff or other participants;

• Use and/or possession of drugs and/or alcohol;

• Diluted urine samples in drug screenings;

• Missing court hearings, drug screenings, counseling appointments, and/or meetings with their mentor;

• Arrest for any reason;

• Belligerent behavior, or acts of vandalism to property;

• Possession of any type of weapon;

• Inappropriate sexual behavior or harassment

Help for veterans

Veterans’ cases are heard first each Wednesday morning. Local veterans advocate Gary Clark said each client is assigned a mentor, who helps them navigate the system, including getting counseling at the veterans’ center on Ariana Avenue. The diversion program helps those who are successful avoid a trial.

"Mentors stay in touch with them, help them - not to play lawyer - but to make sure they get to drug testing,” Clark said. "The whole idea is to try to stay sober, get them back on the straight and narrow. A lot of it has to do with drugs, alcohol, domestic violence. Some of it has to do with their time in combat.”

Clark said they also help with attitude adjustment.

“In some cases, they tested positive for alcohol or tested positive for meth,” Clark said. “The judge may take some action on that. Last week, a guy was sent back to incarceration. The judge doesn't want to hear excuses.”

One veteran, who had been in a rehab center for drugs, actually asked to be sent to back to jail because of drug use in the neighborhood of the center.

“I just want to thank you for sending me to a better place than the last one,” said Ricky Swearingen. “Everyone was high on drugs. It's hard for me - an ex-addict - to stay straight. I just don't want to be sent to a place like that again. I appreciate you putting me back in jail to get me away from that place.”

Swearingen also asked about the whereabouts of his bicycle, which also contained all of his belongings in a basket. One of the program mentors said he had it and would keep it safe.

"I think what we're hoping is the next time we call your name, you'll be at the ACTS program,” Stamey said, referring to a Hillsborough County in-patient program. “It didn't put a smile on my face to take you back into custody, but I'm glad to hear it was for the right reason.”

Between 2008 and 2020, 1,022 people have participated in Behavioral Health Court, with 284 graduating and 79% of those graduates remaining out of the legal system. However, 21% - or 51 graduates - have been rearrested.

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Post-Adjudicated Drug Court

Another part of Problem Solving Court is Post-Adjudicated Drug Court, a diversion program for people who have been found guilty in regular court and who have enough points in the judicial system to go to jail or prison. In lieu of incarceration, they can go through the program. Like Behavioral Health Court, they are drug tested frequently - up to five times a week when they first begin the program. They also make more frequent appearances before Stamey.

That morning, Stamey had to deal with Andrew Grace, 34, who had been arrested on drug charges in 2017 for possession of heroin and cocaine. The court altered his probation and placed him in PADC.

He was in in-patient care at Tri County Human Services’ New Beginnings in Bartow, a drug addiction treatment center that uses a 12-step approach that includes: cognitive and counseling therapy, trauma-related therapy, rational-emotive therapy, anger management and relapse prevention planning.

Polk County Judge David Stamey addresses issues with Andrew Grace in Behavioral Health Court in Bartow Fl. Wednesday August 18, 2021. ERNST PETERS/ THE LEDGER
Polk County Judge David Stamey addresses issues with Andrew Grace in Behavioral Health Court in Bartow Fl. Wednesday August 18, 2021. ERNST PETERS/ THE LEDGER

But Grace, who was in the courthouse, didn’t show up for his 9:45 a.m. court hearing. A court official said he was in the parking lot throwing up, knowing he would be taken back to jail for drug use after testing positive.

“I was told he was in the building, but he flew the coop,” Stamey said.

Grace presented himself to the judge later in the morning.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys often work together in Problem Solving Court to hammer out the best solution for the participants. They then present their proposed solution to Stamey. Both sides asked the judge to put him back in treatment.

But Stamey noted that Grace had just come back from the New Beginnings program, where he had tested positive for drug use. And, he said, Grace had been in the program for several years when it normally takes people 12 to 18 months to complete.

Court specialist Ashley Smith pleaded with the judge.

“Mr. Grace is not a violent criminal. He's not out there breaking the law,” Smith said. “He has an addiction. At some point we've got to find him the right treatment... Mr. Grace used meth while inpatient. He has a very addictive personality. He's not a criminal. His father is serving a life sentence. He has severe anxiety and an uncontrollable need for drugs — heroin and cocaine.”

His mother was in court and cried as Stamey reluctantly ordered deputies to take her son into custody.

“You showed up like a man and took responsibility,” Stamey said. “I'm going to take you into custody under no bond and put you on the docket.”

Judge Stamey

Polk County Judge David Stamey in Bartow Fl. Wednesday August 18 2021. He oversees Problem Solving Court. ERNST PETERS/ THE LEDGER
Polk County Judge David Stamey in Bartow Fl. Wednesday August 18 2021. He oversees Problem Solving Court. ERNST PETERS/ THE LEDGER

Stamey is a native of Polk County and a graduate of Winter Haven High School, Polk Community College, the University of Florida and earned his law degree in 1995 from Stetson University. He was an assistant state attorney, working as chief of the felony division in Bartow, when Gov. Rick Scott appointed him to the county court bench in 2018. He took over in Problem Solving Court in 2020 from Judge Susan Barber.

“Everything we do is supposed to be therapeutic,” said Stamey, 51. “We don't call it punishment. The team kicks it around, they drug test before court appearance. I won't do anything today if they test positive. I’ll bring it back next week.”

Stamey said in his judge training for problem-solving court, he learned that the most successful clients work hard based on a motivation he found interesting - to please the judge. Unlike in criminal court, which can be a non-stop blur of defendants each day, he said he tries to get to know each client on a personal level so he can ask pointed questions in each meeting and try to understand each situation. He also wants them to know that he cares.

"The challenge is what we do here, you've got to have motivated people,” Stamey said in his chambers during his lunch break. “The idea is you're not going off to jail or prison, but you better get it right here. Options are available all throughout the criminal justice system. Everybody wants the least amount of punishment they can get.”

One issue some people have is something Stamey said he never thought he would have to know about – diluted urine. Their drug test has to have a viable sample, but some clients who know they will test positive will try to get around the test by drinking a lot of water just before testing.

“I've learned more about diluted urine in the last year and a half,” Stamey told one defendant. She explained that she had been in the emergency room and they had given her two bags of IV fluids just prior to her test, which is why her sample the week before had been diluted. She brought medical documents to back up her claim.

Many of his court appearances with defendants have been held virtually since March 2020. In August, he met in person for the first time with Rachel Powell, who was originally arrested in March 2020 on drug charges. She was selected for Stamey’s courtroom in October 2020. She is in the last phase of Post-Adjudication Drug Court.

"I've been talking to you for months and I don't think we've met face to face,” he said, smiling behind his face mask.

“I thought you was going to be a lot taller,” Powell replied with a nervous smile.

Court records show that she has appeared before the judge weekly and has been found “compliant” each time.

“You're at the finish line,” Stamey told her. “You're doing well - keep up the great work.”

Ledger reporter Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at kmoore@theledger.com or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.

To get help

Polk County's Peace River Center offers a 24-Hour Emotional Support and Crisis Line: 863-519-3744 or toll-free at 800-627-5906

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Mental Health: Polk County's Problem Solving Court offers help instead of jail

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