Tarrant County plans to use $23.3 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to create a mental health diversion center from the jail.

The center could be a step toward solving the issue of county jails being, by default, the largest providers of mental health care. But My Health My Resources CEO Susan Garnett said the center is just one step toward a solution.

“It’s a statement about our society and our culture that in any urban community in America, they will tell you there are today more people receiving psychiatric services in jails than there are today receiving psychiatric services in their local hospitals,” said Garnett, who runs the county agency charged with providing mental health services. “A mental health diversion center isn’t the answer, but it’s part of the answer.”

Why is this happening?

County Administrator G.K. Maenius said people with mental health problems are being put through the jail system instead of getting the medical help they need. The county’s mental health jail diversion program would help people with mental illness get help instead of going to jail for some crimes.

Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius

The commissioners court recently approved the creation of the diversion center and to maintain the center for the next two years, Maenius said. My Health My Resources of Tarrant County will run the programs in the facility. 

“This would help individuals who are arrested for minor charges, such as criminal trespass or disorderly conduct,” he said. “Rather than putting them into the county jail, we would divert them from the criminal justice system in totality and get them the type of mental health care that they need. These individuals are not criminals, they’re just people that need some assistance.”

Garnett said the county has wanted to start a mental health diversion program for years, but the funding was not available.

“As we have come through COVID, and we continue to see people with mental health conditions who commit lower-level offenses going to the jail, we recognize this is an ongoing issue for our community,” she said. “And now we have the opportunity with ARPA funds to address COVID related issues that exist in the community, and this is certainly that.”

The facility will be in a building owned by Tarrant County, but the exact location has not yet been determined, Garnett said. She said the opening date depends on how much repair the building needs. She anticipates about 40 beds will be available.

How will the diversion center work?

The voluntary programs will help provide services for those who might need medications or other help, Maenius said. Those who are diverted will stay in the facility an average of one to three days to get triaged and help, which could include medications and counseling.

It is completely separate from the criminal justice system, Maenius said. Officers are trained in identifying people with mental health issues when on a call through My Health My Resources.

Officers can arrive on calls for a minor incident like criminal trespass and talk to the person there and determine whether mental health help is needed. From there, officers can offer to send people to the diversion center to get assistance, or to send them to the county jail. If they choose the diversion center, the officer will drive them there and drop them off.

“We have been for the last probably 10 years providing funding through MHMR to help our police officers identify individuals that may have a mental health issue, and we tried to divert at that point,” he said. “Unfortunately, it means an arrest before we get into the diversion aspect. We do find, though, that when someone enters our county jail one of the things that we do is a mental health triage on that individual to see if it’s a mental health issue so that we can make the magistrates aware of that and also trying to get that individual help without having to take that person fully through the system.”

The goal of the center is to connect people with ongoing services they need, Garnett said.

“The diversion center is kind of like a waystation, a transfer station almost, on your way to longer-term services,” she said. “Will 100% of the people who are offered these services accept services? Probably not. But we expect a lot of people will.”

What’s next?

The center’s funding is approved only for the next two years. 

If My Health My Resources is going “to need any other type of assistance … then they’ll be coming back to the county, and we will be working with them and provide additional resources to them,” Maenius said. “One thing about the ARPA funds is that a lot of people look at just the monies that are coming down to local governments. There are a number of revenue streams that provide funding for mental health, housing, things like that that are above and beyond the monies that are coming directly down to local governments through the federal relief fund.”

Garnett said a diversion center won’t address all of patients’ needs.

Although the diversion center is a good step, she said, one big future need is reliable housing for people to move to, because so many people they see are homeless. Better housing will help keep people from having to return to the center.

“It would be nice if one center would fix all those problems. We would have opened one center long ago,” Garnett said. “It’s not going to be a one-center approach. The center is going to be one of the new tools that we have in our toolbox, but we have to have reliable, supportive housing for people to move to after they leave.” 

Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at kristen.barton@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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