State increases funding to crisis stabilization units as Ozark Guidance Center cuts ties

Alex Gladden
Fort Smith Times Record
The Sebastian County Crisis Stabilization Unit Five West is seen in July 2018. The unit is designed to keep people with mental health disorders out of jail.

The Arkansas Department of Human Services upped its payments to the state's crisis stabilization units by up to $38,000 a month on Thursday.

DHS originally allotted up to $52,000 a month to each of the four crisis stabilization units in the state including Sebastian County's unit, said Kathryn Lawson Griffin, the justice reinvestment coordinator with the governor's office. With the added $38,000, the units will now receive up to $90,000 a month. 

Crisis stabilization units are designed as places where people who are experiencing a mental health crisis can go. Police officers take people to the units who would otherwise be taken to jail. There are units in Sebastian, Washington, Pulaski, and Craighead Counties. 

According to a DHS statement, the department chose to increase the amount that each unit receives because of the "challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic." 

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Impact of Ozark Guidance contract cut

On Wednesday, the Washington County crisis stabilization unit closed its doors after Ozark Guidance, the mental health provider that staffed the unit, ended its contract. 

The Washington County unit is now looking for a new provider, which would allow the unit to reopen. In the meantime, officers are supposed to take people from the six counties that the unit served to Sebastian County. 

But in all likelihood, this will have very little impact on Sebastian County, said Joey Potts, the director of Five West Crisis Stabilization Unit in Sebastian County. 

“We’re happy to help them, and we will do whatever we can do for them, but just logistically it's kind of not very realistic," Potts said. 

It is something that the unit already struggles within the outlying counties that it serves. It can take an hour to reach the unit from Logan County, meaning it takes an officer away from duty for at least two hours. Many of the towns with smaller forces cannot afford to lose an officer for that long. 

“And that’s still one of the barriers to the CSU for rural areas," Potts said. 

That is the same problem that Potts expects from the area that Washington County's CSU unit previously covered. 

Another issue is that when officers take people to the crisis stabilization unit from so far away, the people often have no way to get back home. 

“They don’t know anybody. They don’t have any resources. There’s just a lot of things to think about. It’s not really as convenient as having their unit up and accessible to them," Potts said. 

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Although Sebastian County will cover the six counties that Washington County previously covered, officers can now take people in a mental health crisis to any stabilization unit in the state, Griffin said. 

The policy also recently changed to allow people to stay up to five days in the unit. Previously, people were only allowed to stay in the unit up to three days, Potts said. 

For the units' first two years of operation, the state provided them with up to $133,000 a month. Griffin said that after Pulaski and Sebastian Counties surpassed two years, they each received $110,000 a month. 

It was starting in July that the units were to start receiving $52,000 a month. That was a number DHS decided was sufficient for the units to continue running. The units will now receive $90,000 a month. 

Griffin said the Craighead County unit will continue to receive up to $133,000 a month until it reaches two years of operation in October. 

Keeping people out of jail

The 16-bed Sebastian County unit serves about 100 people a month. In June, the unit helped 95 people, and in May it helped 93, Potts said. 

The unit's primary goal is to help keep people out of jail, but it also serves people who do not have insurance, making it one of the few places that people without insurance can receive mental health services, Potts said. 

“It has an impact on our county jail, but the larger impact, in my opinion, the CSUs they do have an impact on the jail population, but the greater impact is on the health of the county. You know I mean these are people who don’t need to be in jail," Sebastian County Sheriff Hobe said. 

Hobe said the jail is not a good place for people who are experiencing a mental health crisis. 

“It’s medieval that this is what we’re going to do is put them in jail," Runion said. "These aren’t people who have hurt someone or something like that. So if we do that we’re putting them in an environment that is, let’s be honest, not healthy. They’re not going to get the type of care they need. So to be able to take them to the CSU is a big win."