About Mecklenburg County’s Criminal Justice Services SOAR Initiative
By Dazara Ware, MPC, SAMHSA SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery Technical Assistance Center
Getting Started with SOAR
In 2017, Mecklenburg County Criminal Justice Services (CJS) in North Carolina was awarded technical assistance through the SAMHSA SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR) Technical Assistance Center. SOAR is a program designed to increase access to Social Security Administration (SSA) disability benefits, Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSI/SSDI), for eligible adults who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness and have a mental illness, medical impairment, and/or a co-occurring substance use disorder. Stephen C. Strzelecki, Psy.D., Lead Clinical Psychologist for CJS’ Forensic Evaluations Unit, saw the need to use SOAR in an effort to uphold the mission of CJS and to reduce further criminal involvement for CJS participants who are identified with serious and persistent mental illness.
On July 13, 2017, the SAMHSA SOAR TA Center provided in-person strategic planning and technical support to implement SOAR in CJS’ diversion and reentry programs. Since that time, the CJS Forensic Evaluations Unit staff members, Marcus Boyd and Melissa Zhiss, have completed SOAR applications and/or worked with community SOAR provider, Christina Heggins of Mecklenburg County Community Support Services, to assist with completing SOAR applications for people who are justice involved. In collaboration with Community Support Services and other community stakeholders, CJS has developed a SOAR initiative that “in some ways looks like a typical SOAR model and in other ways is unique to our situation and relies on partnerships with a network of community providers,” says Dr. Strzelecki.
Practical Steps Taken to Address Barriers
With successful reentry and diversion practices in mind, CJS has worked to address the barriers often involved in SSI/SSDI applications for people who are justice involved. These barriers include lack of resources to transport applicants to required medical appointments or consultative exams, lack of communication between SSA and the facility, lack of trained SOAR staff to complete applications, and the lack of community resources to assist with completion of applications that are initiated but not completed or approved prior to an applicant’s release from jail. CJS has worked to address each of these challenges. To date, some of the highlights of the Mecklenburg County Criminal Justice Services’ SOAR initiative include:
- The CJS team has developed a court order for a “Mental Health Evaluation” for mental status evaluations to be completed and used as part of the applicant’s SOAR application. Through this measure, applicants do not have to wait for a consultative exam to be scheduled in the community. CJS reports, “The vague nature of just calling it a mental health evaluation allows CJS to decide what tests need to be given to evaluate the client’s functioning, and by using a court order, it allows CJS to assume responsibility for completing it and to easily access someone if they are in jail. If the individual is in the community and CJ involved, a mental health evaluation can be ordered and the individual can come into our office. We have even utilized conditions of probation to reflect participation in a MHE so a separate order doesn’t have to be filed.” Based on the team’s work with the judges and the Public Defender’s Office, the order is written to allow CJS to share the report with community providers (e.g., a SOAR worker or the mental health treatment team), and provide the judge and attorneys with only the recommendations, not the full report. This allows the individual to get their needs met, while limiting the amount of information going into their criminal file that could potentially be used against them.
- The team has developed a strategy to assist applicants by prioritizing SOAR cases into two categories:
- Initial SOAR claims, where the team works with the applicant to complete the entire application process from start to finish. This includes assisting with claims for individuals that have not applied in the past and for individuals that previously received SSI, but lost benefits and need to reapply.
- SOAR claims where the team begins the SOAR process while the applicant is in jail and then transitions the claim to a community SOAR provider to complete the application after the applicant is released but before a decision on the claim can be determined. Dr. Strzelecki states, “Since we really don’t care who the SOAR worker of record is, as long as the client gets what they need, I consider this a win-win-win situation.”
- CJS is in the process of establishing a pre-release agreement between the Mecklenburg County Jail and SSA to allow for applications to be submitted 120 days prior to release. Currently, the pre-release agreement is with the Sheriff’s Office attorney and it should be active in the near future.
- The CJS team developed a SOAR-Criminal Justice Steering Committee and has incorporated the Steering Committee’s work into the State SOAR plan.
- CJS has prepared to apply for the 2018 Law Enforcement and Behavioral Health Partnerships for Early Diversion grant in collaboration with the Department of Health, Mecklenburg Police Department, and Community Support Services.
As a result of these efforts, the SOAR model is used as a tool to facilitate access to resources that people who are justice involved often lack upon reentry in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. The insurance and income that accompany these Social Security disability programs can provide access to much-needed treatment and leverage housing opportunities for eligible individuals involved in the criminal justice system.
Criminal Justice Services (CJS) is a department within North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County Government that is responsible for promoting improvements in the criminal justice system through interagency cooperation, coordination, and planning. CJS was formed in 2010 by the Mecklenburg County Manager’s Office with a mission to “lead data-driven decision making, effective programming, and interagency collaboration to reduce criminal justice involvement and strengthen the well-being of our community.” As one of six programs within CJS, the Forensic Evaluations Unit (FEU) works with all levels of the judicial system to conduct court-ordered psychological evaluations and diversionary screenings and services to individuals who have criminal justice involvement. FEU is lead by Stephen C. Strzelecki, Psy.D.