Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office adds social worker position to the jail

Hennepin County leaders hope to reach about a thousand people suffering with mental illness or complex co-occurring conditions who cycle from detention, to psychiatric treatment at a hospital, to the streets and back.

On Tuesday, the County Commission approved funding for a new social worker position in the county jail.

“We need to break the cycle,” said Sheriff David Hutchinson, who said his office frequently encounters those who are experiencing a mental health crisis or identify as having a mental illness as they enter the Adult Detention Center.

“I don’t know the exact number but it is a lot. It’s heartbreaking,” said Hutchinson. “It’s just a lot every single day, multiple times a day.”

According to the Sheriff’s Office, the health and human services social worker will be paired with a deputy and records staff. They will help identify those who may need services that are not provided by the jail.

“The social worker will be able to quickly connect them to the services they need instead of having to wait, so if they come in with trauma or crisis, we can get them services within minutes,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to give these people the care they need because everybody’s life is sacred.”

In September, 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS reported on Naajikhan Adonis Powell, who was found unresponsive at the Hennepin County jail after an apparent suicide attempt. His family removed life support nearly a week later.

Family calls for accountability after 23-year-old dies following apparent suicide attempt at Hennepin County Jail

The 23-year-old had a documented history of mental illness, marked by several hospital stays.

KSTP asked Hutchinson if this new position is a reaction to that tragedy.

“No, we’ve been wanting to do this for a long time,” he said, adding that the case is still under investigation. “Any time that happens, it just hurts my heart as a human being, but it hurts my heart even worse knowing this person died while in custody.”

The new social worker will collaborate with the Behavioral Health Center on Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis.

“A lot of times we’ll see individuals that really the behavior that brings them into contact with law enforcement is precipitated either by an underlying mental illness or by an addiction,” said Leah Kaiser, the Hennepin County Behavioral Health senior department administrator.

If an individual, arrested for a low-level offense, agrees to get help through this partnership, they will be fast-tracked through the pre-booking process and transported to the Behavioral Health Center where services will be started. The Sheriff’s Office said this will allow the detainee to start working on their issues ahead of a court appearance.

The center is equipped with medical staff, alcohol and drug counselors, and mental health providers, among other services.

“They’re all working collectively and in an integrated way to listen to the individual to determine what are primarily, the immediate, needs that individual is facing but also what’s underneath and what’s driving that individual into the behaviors that are putting them at risk for a booking into jail or being brought to the hospital,” said Kaiser. “What we are trying to advance is a response that allows people to gain access to services instead of pursuing or moving that individual further into the criminal justice system.”

The County Commission also approved funding on Tuesday to support a nurse practitioner and contractors at the center.

In just two years, from Sept. 2018 to Aug. 2020, the counselors at the Behavioral Health Center completed 681 referrals to community mental health, 381 referrals to economic support services and 483 referrals to housing.

“There are a number of individuals that often have more complex conditions where the traditional models of care, as we say, aren’t able to meet the whole myriad of issues that an individual is facing,” said Kaiser. “So that person just moves from one set of services to another, and they never really demonstrate the outcomes, the health the wellbeing, the stability we’re really looking for.”

The sheriff hopes the partnership will reduce the number of people held in custody with mental illness and substance use disorders.

“It doesn’t matter if you have mental illness, addiction, had a bad day, we have to help these people,” said Hutchinson. “Let’s get these people the care they need, so they can be contributing members of society, crime goes down, their lives are happy, their family’s lives are happy.”

He is also calling for more state and federal funding to increase the amount of long-term mental health housing available.

“The jail is not meant for those suffering a mental health crisis,” said Hutchinson. “It’s an ongoing issue not just in Hennepin County but national and worldwide and I’m really going to start pushing the envelope here and saying these people need help, jail isn’t a place for them.”