SAMHSA’s GAINS Center has developed an educational, collaborative model that supports communities in addressing critical issues to better serve individuals in the criminal justice system who are experiencing mental and substance use disorders. The Learning Collaborative (LC) model provides participating teams with free technical assistance from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) GAINS Center. These local teams from jurisdictions across the country take part in intensive trainings, expert presentations, and peer-to-peer learning, along with group discussions to help them strategize and enhance the support they provide to their communities.

A Supportive Model for Learning and Taking Action

An LC is a learning model for helping teams grow skills, develop approaches, and implement strategies around an important topic. Typically, each LC includes a mix of expert-led virtual educational presentations and Q&A sessions, peer-to-peer sharing, intensive one-on-one coaching with each site, and regular check-ins and support as jurisdictions develop strategies and work toward achieving the goals established by the teams for their LC participation. LC topics are chosen based on SAMHSA’s priorities and identified needs among the GAINS Center’s audience.

“An LC is an opportunity for jurisdictions to learn about best practices, promising practices, and generally things going on around the country in this topic area that they might not otherwise be aware of,” says Chan Noether, director of SAMHSA’s GAINS Center. “Along with familiarizing them with the topic and engaging them in quite a bit of strategic planning, the subject-matter experts (SMEs) are really resources to help participants understand what is going on in the field.”

Setting Goals and Gaining Tools

Every year SAMHSA’s GAINS Center hosts up to 5 LCs, engaging a total of about 24 teams spread across various states, counties, cities, and organizations nationwide. Throughout the year, these teams periodically meet virtually or sometimes in person with their SMEs and each other.

The LCs are designed to help the teams achieve four key objectives:

  • Enhance collective knowledge of key issues and familiarity with the topic.
  • Understand promising, best, and evidence-based practices to address the topic and related issues.
  • Develop strategic plans that focus on the issue, including defining assignments, deadlines, and measurable outcomes to be reported.
  • Increase knowledge about the challenges and lessons learned in implementing strategies, through peer-to-peer sharing via virtual convenings, monthly collaborative calls, and other virtual mechanisms.

“The GAINS Center LCs are designed to work with jurisdictions that are interested in taking a deep dive to understand issues related to a particular topic of interest, and to collaboratively develop strategies to address various priorities in this area,” says Noether.

Bringing Plans to Fruition with Support and Coaching

Anywhere from 3 to 10 cross-disciplinary teams participate in each LC. Teams are selected through a competitive application process and are composed of representatives from local systems and organizations, usually about 8 to 10 individuals, one of whom serves as team lead. Selected teams for each LC work intensively to determine optimal ways to implement best practices and define success for their respective topic.

Each LC includes SMEs who work with jurisdiction teams during the implementation process and facilitate peer-to-peer sharing. Generally, an LC includes the following:

  • A virtual kick-off call with each team to focus on identifying preliminary technical assistance needs.
  • A virtual opening convening session where all teams meet each other and their SMEs. During this event, SMEs provide an overview of the LC’s areas of focus, provide information on best practices in the field, and engage teams in beginning a strategic planning process to develop a preliminary strategic plan.
  • Virtual “ask the experts” events based on technical assistance needs identified across the LC teams.
  • Intensive virtual or onsite technical assistance, which may include Sequential Intercept Model (SIM) Mapping Workshops, topical workshops and trainings, operational tune-ups, and other technical assistance tailored to further the goals of the LC teams.
  • Ongoing virtual coaching and technical assistance.
  • A virtual closing event and outcome reporting.

At the end of the LC engagement, most jurisdictions have completed strategic plans and begun to implement the planned strategies to bring best practices to their communities. “An LC gives jurisdictions unprecedented access to national experts with whom they might be otherwise unable to connect,” says Noether. “This expertise, plus the incredibly valuable peer-to-peer learning, helps them bring their plans to reality.”

Lessons from the Field: 2022 LC Testimonials

In 2022, the Learning Community topics included the following:

  • Transition Reentry Strategies: This LC allowed teams to develop community-wide strategic plans to advance policies and practices around a continuum of processes that provide seamless transition into and retention in the community.
  • Equity and Inclusion in Drug Treatment Courts: This LC provided participating treatment courts a structured and guided process to learn about and implement core strategies outlined in the National Association of Drug Court Professionals’ Equity and Inclusion: Equivalent Access Assessment and Toolkit.
  • Integrating Civilian-Led, Co-response, and Specialized Police Response Models: This LC helped communities reduce police involvement in mental health crisis response and seamlessly integrate innovative and alternative response strategies.
  • Competence to Stand Trial/Competency Restoration: This multi-year LC focuses on legal, clinical, and systemic issues at the state level, including the demand for competence evaluations, evidence-based screening and assessment measures, waitlists for competence restoration program beds, best practices for competence restoration programs, partnership and collaboration development between state and local agencies, and other relevant issues.

The following are some first-hand accounts from participants in these LCs.

Jacob Tebes, PhD, Director Elm City COMPASS, New Haven, Connecticut: Integrating Civilian-Led, Co-response, and Specialized Police Response Models LC

New Haven, Connecticut, is implementing COMPASS—Compassionate Allies Serving our Streets—a community-based initiative to create a system of sustainable supports for individuals in New Haven experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis.

Our jurisdiction participated in all general Learning Collaborative technical assistance sessions, as well as five additional technical assistance sessions tailored to our jurisdiction’s needs. COMPASS stakeholders found both general sessions and those provided to our system very helpful. We learned about other programs nationally that are implementing crisis response programs, obtained information on best practices, received validation for aspects of our initiative, and gained access to resources and networks that we can draw on to launch and improve COMPASS.

COMPASS has four primary goals:

  1. Implement a civilian crisis response team, staffed by a social worker and a peer with lived experience, to complement and support actions taken by New Haven first responders (police, fire, and emergency medical);
  2. Enhance the crisis response service system in New Haven by coordinating and integrating it with local, regional, and statewide crisis response services;
  3. Establish a community advisory board (CAB), representative of New Haven residents, to provide feedback about COMPASS that reflects community needs and values; and
  4. Implement a rigorous mixed-methods evaluation that includes continuous quality improvements to crisis team operations and an effectiveness evaluation that assesses the impact of the COMPASS initiative on individuals served, the service system, and the community.

As we prepare to implement each of our four goals in the coming weeks, we have been able to apply the lessons learned from the Collaborative to improve the launch of each component. The advice I would give to other jurisdictions interested in LCs is:

  • Engage and establish partnerships with a range of community stakeholders—individuals with lived experience, first responders, service providers, funders—to ensure that actions taken are consistent with and responsive to changing community needs and values;
  • Develop a shared vision for the overall initiative that includes not only creation of a crisis response team but also supports for the success of that team, such as system enhancements, ongoing community input, and the collection and use of data to inform decision making about crisis response and service system modifications;
  • Address social, historical, and institutional barriers to change by leveraging the shared vision among stakeholders and the relationships established through effective partnerships.

Tracey Ginn, MS, LCMHC, CPM, Interim Assistant Director for Hospitals, Division of State-Operated Healthcare Facilities, Psychiatric Hospital Team, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services: Competence to Stand Trial/Competency Restoration LC

Note: The competence to stand trial/competency restoration LC has continued for multiple years, with some new and some continuing teams.

The knowledge shared across sessions was incredible. There were a few presenters that I feel like I could listen to for hours on end and continue to learn from their expertise and experience. We received great feedback and guidance from all the technical assistance providers, and their ability to connect us or refer us to even more experts or examples to help us with our needs was a huge gain for us. One of the most helpful parts of the LC was the ability to schedule follow-up one-on-one sessions with some of the experts and really address our site-specific questions/issues. Especially helpful to us were [SME] Neil Gowensmith’s series on capacity restoration and Richard Van Dorn and Patricia Zapf’s presentation on data.

While the pandemic slowed down the LC process, that also allowed us more time to work on this project and to continue to interact with other sites and obtain ongoing technical assistance. The LC was particularly useful in helping to define/delineate jail-based restoration and community-based restoration programs and how to utilize needs and risk factors to define the population for these programs. The work from the LC has helped shape the pilot competence restoration projects that are launching now.

Mariliz Loftus, Coordinator, Lackawanna County Treatment Court, Scranton, Pennsylvania. Transition Reentry Strategies LC

An LC is definitely an amazing learning experience! Everyone on our team learned a lot. The beginning sessions were most useful [to us]. It was great to get all of our team together that work in different areas of expertise and have them attend the trainings. The most helpful part was having [SME] Julia Orlando available to answer all of our questions, come to speak at a Housing Coalition meeting and a Reentry meeting, and finally being available for us to go and tour her facility.

Our LC helped our team realize how Lackawanna County desperately needs a 24/7 homeless shelter. We knew there was a need for it, but after listening to Julia speak on the topic, we realized how helpful it would be to the residents of Lackawanna County, both for the homeless population and the residents. With Julia’s guidance and knowledge, we were able to establish short, obtainable goals to put this project into motion.

We received many ideas that we haven’t tried yet and are looking forward to implementing in our program! The thing that mostly stood out to me was the compassion and the understanding all of the trainers had about the reentry process. Reentry isn’t always a subject a lot of people like to discuss or even care about, but all of the people involved in this training truly believe people can get better with the right help, and they were there to share what they found works!

How You Can Apply

The solicitations for applications for the 2023 LCs, as well as an informational webinar about the 2023 LCs, will be promoted through the GAINS Center’s listserv in the fall of 2022. If you are not signed up to receive the GAINS Center’s newsletters, be sure to sign up here:

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