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State cuts threaten aid to mentally ill

January 22, 2010 12:35 am

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Dorothy Boling and Mike Kalandras sit at Discovery House in Warsaw, which provides on-site counselors and other programs through the regional community services board to help people who suffer from mental illness. lo0122diversion2.jpg

Mike Kalandras eats dinner with residential support coordinator Thelma Hayden (right) and residents of Discovery House in Warsaw. Proposed state budget cuts could force officials to close the group home for the mentally ill.

BY FRANK DELANO

The Northern Neck Regional Jail is "terrible, crowded, noisy and the food is awful," said Mike Kalandras.

He ought to know. He's been there enough.

Kalandras' criminal record in Richmond and Northumberland counties is 20 charges long: 15 of them for bad checks, some stealing, a breaking and entering, plus several probation infractions. He also suffers from manic depression.

Kalandras, 46, is not alone. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 17 percent of jail and prison inmates have serious mental illness. At that rate, more than 11,000 of Virginia's 67,000 jail and prison inmates suffer significant mental problems.

When he was released from jail three months ago, Kalandras had nowhere to go. Luckily, he was spotted by a jail diversion program that gave him a room in a group home, helped him manage his medicines and took him to his probation appointments as well as intensive substance-abuse and anger-management counseling.

"Since I've been in the program, I've been on an even keel and pretty stable," he said. "They look after my medicines and take good care of me.

"I've become more open-minded and have a more positive attitude toward people. I've learned to see things in a different light. At first, I wouldn't talk to anybody. Now, I can't shut up."

Kalandras believes the jail diversion program run by the Middle Peninsula-Northern Neck Community Services Board has helped him chart a new course for his life.

If a judge concurs, Kalandras plans to move to Florida to be with relatives and perhaps find a job as a cook, something he learned to enjoy while fixing meals for his fellow residents in the group home.

Kalandras' future may be brighter than the future of the program that helped him.

Revenue shortfalls totaling nearly $4 billion prompted former Gov. Tim Kaine to propose cutting $1 million of the $3 million allocated to 10 jail diversion programs in the state.

New Gov. Bob McDonnell has not specifically addressed mental-health funding, but he said he will strike some $2 billion in tax increases built into Kaine's proposal, which would require further spending cuts.

Until now, MP-NNCSB has received $153,000 a year for jail diversion. The Rappahannock Area Community Service Board, which serves Fredericksburg and surrounding counties, has received $140,000 annually.

If approved by the General Assembly, the funding reduction could ax about one-third of the funding for the programs at both agencies.

"We'd have to cut services. Housing and transportation would have to be cut," said O'Connell McKeon, clinic director for MP-NNCSB.

She said she is also afraid that the budget cuts may result in closing a group home.

MP-NNCSB now operates two homes called Discovery Place I and Discovery Place II in Middlesex County and Warsaw, where persons like Kalandras recover from mental illness with the assistance of on-site counselors and other CSB programs.

"A lot of these guys just don't have any friends," McKeon said. In addition to camaraderie, the homes provide their residents with hopes of better lives and the skills to lead them successfully, she said.

RACSB Director of Clinical Services Frank DeForest said that agency has used its jail diversion funding to begin training local law enforcement officers how to recognize and handle problems caused by mentally ill people. One goal of the program is to take mentally ill people to a crisis center for treatment--not to a jail for punishment.

RACSB also provides six counselors to the mental-health unit of the 1,500-inmate Rappahannock Regional Jail.

One of those positions has been funded with jail diversion money and will soon become vacant. DeForest said filling the vacancy has been put on hold pending the outcome of the budget process.

"The five other full-time positions are not enough to meet the jail's needs." said DeForest.

In May, the MP-NNCSB hired Linda H. Elam as a jail diversion counselor. Elam is also a retired captain at the Middle Peninsula Regional Jail, a partner in the program.

Elam said she has worked with 19 people referred to the jail diversion program by courts, police and probation officers. Ten of her clients "are doing well at home" after successfully completing the program, she said.

Nine, including Kalandras, are still in the program, some at home and others at group homes. Two more inmates were scheduled to join the program this week.

"Only one has gone back to jail because he couldn't comply with the rules," she said.

Frank Delano: 804/761-4300
Email: fpdelano@gmail.com





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