Four people graduated from the Albemarle-Charlottesville Behavioral Health Docket on Wednesday as the diversionary option resumed full operations following a brief pause spurred by a nationwide shortage of healthcare workers.
Started in 2015, Behavioral Health Docket — sometimes referred to as the therapeutic docket or mental health docket — has become a successful tool for local courts to divert people from jail in favor of treatment.
In mid-November, the docket stopped accepting new clients due to staffing issues at community mental health provider Region Ten, causing significant impact on the program. Now, after receiving some additional funding in the form of a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, the program has resumed accepting new clients with two being added to docket Wednesday.
Despite logistical and staffing hardships, the docket continued forward even during the pause in new admissions. On Wednesday four participants graduated during a ceremony at the Albemarle General District Court.
Judge Matthew J. Quatrara, who oversees the docket, congratulated each of the graduates on their many months of efforts and improvements. All the individuals who graduated Wednesday had shown a willingness to put in the work and keep up with their health needs, Quatrara said, and should be proud of their work.
“As you know, I’m a big fan of aviation and aviation metaphors,” he said. “So with that in mind, I’ll remind you all that the hardest part of this program is the take off and the landing and you all have stuck the landing.”
The docket is for those for whom mental illness played a significant part in the crime they committed. It is open to those charged with misdemeanor offenses. Defendants are not usually eligible if they committed a felony or have a significant history of violent or sexual offenses. In general, the docket takes nine to 12 months to complete and involves various forms of therapy, peer support and medical treatment.
Currently, the docket has 13 active participants, three inactive participants and 12 pending additions. According to Katie Moore, the probation program manager for the docket, pending refers to those who are currently in some stage of the process for assessment for the docket.
In addition to the graduates, various family members, friends, other docket participants and mental health care professionals were present in the courtroom Wednesday to show their support. Addressing the other docket participants who are still going through treatment, Quatrara urged them to heed the works of their graduating peers.
“I want you to internalize what they say and know that they have been in the same position you are in right now,” he said. “They have walked the journey you’re starting and they can help you understand what is to come.”
The graduates, who asked not to be named in the article, each walked up one by one and accepted certificates of completion as well as a rock each bearing a chosen word of support, such as “believe” and “prevail.” Their charges were all either reduced or dismissed outright and jail time suspended, though the graduates must still remain on good behavior and pay restitution, if so ordered.
One of the graduates spoke about how he was overwhelmed when he first joined the docket and was entirely focused on how the treatment program would help get his charges reduced.
“As I went through the program that became the furthest thing from my mind,” he said. “I was in denial about my mental illness for a while, but this program gave me the help I needed. It saved my life.”
Another docket graduate also talked about her journey to accepting her mental illness and substance addiction. When she first joined the docket she said she had difficulty focusing and staying still but thanks to medication and other treatments she said she now feels she can have a life.
Talking to her peers still in the program, the graduate told them not to view the mental health care professionals as the enemy and to make the best of what’s available to them.
“My favorite movie in the whole world is Star Wars and I believe in our world there is both a good force and a bad force,” she said. “So hey, may the force be with you.”
After the graduates left the hopeful tone continued as Quatrara called up the active participants one by one to check on their progress. Seated in the witness box in front of the judge’s dais, the participants each had friendly and candid conversations with the judge, updating him on their lives.
Each conversation ended with a friendly acknowledgment of the progress being made and a reminder to return to court next month for another update.
The docket will continue to meet bi-monthly and each month more participants are expected to be admitted as others graduate.