BILLERICA – The Middlesex County Restoration Centre, a proposed diversion centre, is close to completion, said commission members who have been working since 2018 to develop the innovative mental and behavioral health intervention project .
City Manager John Curran hosted Monday’s roundtable, chaired by Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, at which he and US Representative Lori Trahan (MA-3), along with others committee representatives and partners, announced a federal investment of $1.65 million for the centre. This money is in addition to the $5 million from the US bailout that the commission received earlier this year.
The funds will be used to open a mental and behavioral health center next year that will provide full clinician services instead of traditional arrest and incarceration strategies. Although the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office was the driving force behind the project, the facility will be run by clinicians and medical professionals. No location has been selected, but Greater Lowell, MetroWest and the southeastern part of Middlesex County are under consideration.
Calling him Restoration center a “crisis diversion model,” Koutoujian bluntly proposed that “we can’t stop to get out of this problem. For too long, law enforcement has had to shoulder the burden of responding to the mental health crisis in the Commonwealth. You shouldn’t have to go to jail to get good treatment; you should be able to distribute it in the community.
He referenced statistics that show a growing number of people are entering the criminal justice system with untreated and undiagnosed behavioral health issues.
“Prisons have become our de facto mental health treatment centers,” Koutoujian said. “Rikers Island in New York, Los Angeles County Jail and Cook County Jail in Chicago are the largest public health providers in the entire country.”
The mental health crisis is growing in the Commonwealth, despite the region’s world-class hospitals, Koutoujian said, an issue that has been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic and an ongoing drug abuse epidemic.
“In January 2019, 11% of my prison population had a diagnosed mental health condition,” Koutoujian said. “Today that figure is 44%. In fact, 40% of those entering the Middlesex Jail and Reformatory must be medically detoxified. The level of acuity of the people we meet in our care is actually much higher.
Trahan got almost $8 million in federal money for Third District projects, including the Restoration Center, which is part of the full government funding package signed into law by President Joe Biden in March.
She spoke about how the Center will reimagine modern policing and community response to mental health and addictions issues, joking that Koutoujian pitched the idea for the center to her right after he entered Congress.
“The Sheriff, Co-Chair Danna Mauch (President and CEO of the Massachusetts Mental Health Association), and I (along with State Senator Cindy Friedman, D-Arlington) worked hard to secure funding for this community project,” Trahan said, “Because we recognize that now, more than ever, we need to invest in mental health and addiction treatment and prevention programs in our communities.”
Law enforcement was represented on the panel by Billerica Police Chief Roy Frost and Chelmsford Lt. Todd Ahern, both of whom have been at the forefront of reinventing the community policing model , effectively anticipating the need for the type of behavioral services the Center will provide.
Frost was instrumental in creating the Police Mental Health Collaborative and Jail Diversion program for Billerica, which recognized the significant increase in mental health issues and referred appropriate cases to mental health services rather than to the side application of the judicial system.
Ahern is a Wellness, Mental Health and Outreach Program Officer with the Chelmsford Police Service.
Billerica and Chelmsford are also part of a regional network Front line initiativea regional police mental health collaboration with Tewksbury, Dracut and Tyngsboro police services.
Frost, who took office in December 2021, called mental health a unique form of illness that requires unique police tactics such as de-escalation and stabilization to keep community members and officers safe.
“A lot of times these crimes that are happening, that we’re responding to, they’re the result of a mental health or addiction crisis,” Frost said. “We know that if we don’t address the biggest issue of what’s wrong with this person, it’s going to continue. Having a place like the Restoration Center focused on this mental health issue will be very helpful to Billerica and to other communities.
Ahern called the center part of an evolving process over the past decade to try to address mental health challenges in modern policing.
“We’re headed in the right direction,” Ahern said. “The center is the big missing piece, and that’s going to make our job a lot easier.”
There are state-level plans to create crisis response centers to build on the restoration center model, Koutoujian said.
“These are smaller models, without all the resources that our pilot will bring, but we are building a mental health care network.”
Ultimately, the goal is to reorient behavioral health care away from the criminal justice system of incarceration or reliance on hospital emergency care, which state representative and commissioner Ken Gordon of Bedford, said inefficient and costly.
“It’s a real win-win,” Gordon said. “It’s a way of solving the problems of people who interact with the police or the health care system because of untreated mental illness or substance abuse issues.”
Koutoujian agreed, saying “It’s the future not only in policing, but also in behavioral health.”