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Northern Colorado Mental Health Programs Stay Afloat Despite Significant Pandemic Funding Cuts

Boulder's Mental Health Diversion Program, housed in the county's Justice Center, is getting by on local funding after facing state-mandated budget cuts last year.
Boulder County
Boulder's Mental Health Diversion Program, housed in the county's Justice Center, is getting by on local funding after facing state-mandated budget cuts last year.

A new Colorado program meant to keep people with unmet mental health needs out of the criminal justice system suffered serious budget cuts last year. Now, communities are cobbling together funds to provide some of these services, but the long-term future of Colorado’s Mental Health Diversion Program remains unclear.

Initially, individuals who qualified for the program were connected with behavioral health services instead of jail time, after being arrested for low-level offenses like trespassing or resisting arrest. Many were experiencing homelessness; all were dealing with some sort of serious mental health issue, such as schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Then, over the summer, pandemic-related budget cuts gutted the state’s Mental Health Diversion Program. Funding was slashed by 90%. In July, three of the four pilot sites serving Larimer and Jackson counties as well as areas in the southwestern and southeastern parts of the stateshut down. Boulder’s pilot site is the only one that has continued operations throughout the pandemic.

“When we found out about the budget cut, it was definitely a big shock to us,” said Mary McKenzie, the sole behavioral health navigator with Boulder’s Mental Health Diversion Program.

An alternative to jail

Many clinicians and law enforcement officers agree that people with severe mental health needs generally don’t belong in jail. Nevertheless, correctional facilities report high levels of mental illness among inmates.

According to Pamela Levett, Boulder County Jail’s mental health clinical supervisor, around 75% of inmates have a mental health diagnosis. Of those, around 17% have ‘severe and persistent’ mental illness.

The goal of Colorado’s Mental Health Diversion Program is to reduce overcrowding in jails and improve individual outcomes by getting participants into treatment.

“So for some of my folks that's working with them to get their ID, their Social Security card, their birth certificate, so that they're able to access more resources,” McKenzie said. “A lot of times I try and figure out where they're at in the housing process, start connecting them to shelters if they're needing it, and then really hope that we can get them to the place where treatment is a viable option for them.”

Since the pilots launched in 2019, participation had been steadily increasing. In its first year and a half of operation, MHDP sites served 88 participants. For fiscal year 2020, completion rates and ‘safety rates,’ meaning the percentage of participants who were not charged with new offenses while on diversion ranged from 50-100%.

Then, following the onset of the pandemic, district attorney’s offices, courthouses and jails closed or restricted access, slowing down the screening process for MHDP participants. Coronavirus-induced budget cuts followed.

“Our office was not able to absorb costs and continue the program without warning, however recognized that a program like this was needed and appreciated in our community,” Necole Hampton, a diversion specialist and program contact for Larimer and Jackson counties, wrote in an email.

Pandemic-related stressors have led to a sustained increase in rates of anxiety, sadness and isolation in the general population.

Understanding the degree to which this has led to an increase in the need for services offered by Colorado’s Mental Health Diversion Program is complex, but McKenzie herself has observed an increase in need.

“We have seen a lot higher acuity with mental health and with substance use,” McKenzie said. “And, you know, the one thing I've noticed is a lot of people are distressed in general with how the pandemic is so widespread and how much stress and trauma it's brought about for folks.”

Cobbling together funding

Following budget cuts, Mary McKenzie now relies on thrift stores and other local groups to help provide basics, like clothing, for program participants.
Mary McKenzie
Boulder County
Following budget cuts, Mary McKenzie now relies on thrift stores and other local groups to help provide basics, like clothing, for program participants.

Earlier this month, Larimer County relaunched its Mental Health Diversion Program after acquiring a local grant through Larimer County Behavioral Health Services. Hampton says the plan is to expand into Jackson County.

In the absence of state dollars, Boulder County has kept its Mental Health Diversion Program going through a variety of local funding sources, enough to pay for Mary McKenzie to stay on as a behavioral health navigator.

“We no longer have funding for anything else in the program, like being able to provide funding for treatment or funding for basic needs items,” McKenzie said.

A small amount of funding for treatment is coming from a separate diversion program for adults. McKenzie is working directly with food banks and thrift stores to provide necessities for program participants.

According to Jon Sarché, a spokesperson for the Colorado Judicial Department, another problem with the loss of funding so early in the MHDP pilot is the state doesn’t have a clear picture of how well these diversion programs actually work.

An uncertain future

There’s no indication that funding will be restored this legislative session; to begin with, the bill that authorized these pilots did so through the summer of 2022 only.

Elaina Shively, a senior deputy district attorney in Boulder County who works on diversion programs, says that they will be able to keep their one behavioral health navigator on for another year and are planning to apply for grants to keep the program going.

McKenzie thinks it would be a big loss if these mental health diversion programs lack consistent funding.

“It's not just to the individuals we serve, but it's to the law enforcement partners we work with. It's to the individuals in our community that try and support this population. It's to the jail, the court. It's widespread,” McKenzie said.

As KUNC's Senior Editor and Reporter, my job is to find out what’s important to northern Colorado residents and why. I seek to create a deeper sense of urgency and understanding around these issues through in-depth, character driven daily reporting and series work.