In Heath Fosteson's years as Crow Wing County Jail administrator, he didn't expect to see former inmates return to jail by choice.

But that's exactly what's happening-those once incarcerated in the facility are coming back, but this time, it's through the front door and they're free to go when they please. The phenomenon Fosteson and others are witnessing stems from the placement of two social workers within the jail, part of a pilot program underway in Crow Wing County seeking to reduce recidivism and connect people with resources to address mental health or substance abuse. The jail administrator said those who received guidance from the social workers while behind bars are coming back to continue getting the help they need on the outside.

"They're coming back weeks later and saying, "Hey, can I sit down and talk with them a little bit?'" Fosteson said during a phone interview Tuesday, June 18. "Maybe they're realizing they can do something better, or get on their medications, or get things straightened out. I think they (the social workers) do more than just worry about their mental health stuff. They're trying to figure out living arrangements: Do they have a place to stay when they're outside? Are they safe where they're staying? ... It's kind of amazing to me that someone would show up at the jail and follow through with that."

Tami Lueck and Nathan Bertram of Crow Wing County Community Services updated the county board Tuesday on the department's comprehensive reentry plan, underway with financial support from Sourcewell and in collaboration with other counties in Region Five. Lueck told commissioners the project was just approved for a second year of grant funding totaling $278,000.

To achieve the stated goals of the program, county officials are pursuing a broad array of approaches, from connecting those with mental illness and chemical dependency already in jail with community resources to seeking to prevent jail bookings in the first place for low-level offenders. So far, the social workers have achieved a screening rate of 80% for those entering jail-meaning they've met with those inmates to determine what potential needs they may have. The goal is to attain 100%, Bertram said.

Beyond work in and around the jail, the latest initiative of the program will send social workers out on certain police calls to help evaluate subjects who need help. This "co-response" model, Bertram said, will involve as many as 10 social workers with different focuses and is in the mold of embedded social workers at larger, metropolitan departments. This aspect of the project is in its infancy, with response to only one or two calls for far, but Bertram said he's in the process of working with law enforcement to develop an app for them to use when a social worker is needed.

Lending expertise

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, people suffering a mental health crisis are more likely to encounter law enforcement than receive medical attention. "As a result, 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year," the organization stated. "Nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition."

While law enforcement and jail staff are equipped to recognize mental health and substance abuse problems, they are not specially trained in social work nor as attuned to which community resources may be best for a given situation, officials said.

Fosteson said he's been asking for community services input in the jail for quite some time, and the grant funding has made it possible.

"For the jail it's a huge positive," Fosteson said. "The staff that work here are obviously not mental health professionals, but obviously they deal with mental health stuff everyday."

Fosteson said the focus to divert people from jail in the first place will hopefully lead to people getting the appropriate care earlier in the process.

Brainerd Police Chief Corky McQuiston sees the co-response model as an opportunity to employ that response even earlier than post-arrest.

"Police normally show up and say, 'Yep, I know you need some help, but I'm just not sure who the right help is,'" McQuiston said by phone Tuesday. "'But I do know that you broke the law by doing X, Y or Z. Our normal methods of dealing with people is those circumstances are to write them tickets or arrest them. If they can get connected with some other resources, then they're far less likely to repeat the cycle."

McQuiston said social workers could also be helpful in situations where law enforcement is called due to disruptive or bizarre behavior that doesn't necessarily rise to the level of serious criminality. Officers may be aware of this person through multiple contacts and may suggest they contact social services, but without follow up it isn't known whether they followed through.

"We leave those situations saying, 'Well, I wonder when we'll be back there,'" McQuiston said.

Lueck said individuals may have a relationship with law enforcement because of these contacts, but might not with those in community services.

"We've never connected with them, we don't even know they're out there," Lueck said during an interview after the meeting. "This is another opportunity for us to do outreach to individuals, where they don't even know that we exist."

Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted said he's excited about the burgeoning partnership and sees it as a project with the potential to benefit law enforcement officers and social workers, but most importantly, the public.

"The end goal is providing resources quicker and more efficiently in the field, and a lot of times that means a face to face conversation with an appropriate worker," Exsted said by phone Tuesday.

An example Exsted offered is the many calls he's seen officers respond to over the years involving welfare checks on elderly residents. It might be a situation in which the resident is beginning to show signs of dementia or has difficulty living alone, but determining the right course of action for that person isn't easy for officers, he said.

"A social worker who has other resources can point to home health nursing or other assistance things," Exsted said. "We'd like to marry up those components sooner, after one or two calls, versus seven or eight calls."

McQuiston said the presence of a social worker may also assist in de-escalating a situation with law enforcement involving someone with a mental illness. Sometimes the mere presence of a police officer can trigger people and cause rising tensions, he said, but a social worker may serve as a bridge in a way someone in uniform might not be able to.

Lueck said she hopes the jail program's success so far rolls over into the co-response program. Social workers will first work with Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office and the Brainerd and Baxter police departments before the program expands countywide.