Mental Health Court Celebrates 10 Years

(Chicago) — The Cook County Mental Health Court celebrated its 10-year anniversary on May 20, graduating three recent participants and lauding the successes of numerous past graduates.

Since its inception in 2004, the specialty court has served 663 people. It is unique in that it is specifically designed to serve felony probationers who have chronic mental health conditions, most of whom also have co-occurring substance dependencies.

The goal of the mental health court is to reduce repeated histories of arrest and incarceration among participants by providing comprehensive clinical services delivered by a coordinated team of partners.

“We’re here for a reason, and it’s not to lock everybody up,” said Judge Paul P. Biebel, Jr., presiding judge of the Criminal Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County. “This is important work, and it touches our souls watching people come back from challenging situations, beating drugs and mental illness. We’re very proud of them, and we congratulate today’s graduates.”

An estimated 20 percent of people entering the Cook County Jail suffer from serious mental illness, often with co-occurring substance use disorders and medical conditions.

Compared to the year before program involvement, the average number of arrests among participants during the first year of the program decreased by 80 percent, according to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office. Additionally, the average number of days spent in jail dropped by 76 percent, resulting in estimated yearly savings to the county of almost $8 million.

Director of Specialty Courts and retired judge Lawrence Fox, along with Judge Biebel and TASC President Pamela Rodriguez, was instrumental in establishing the Cook County Mental Health Court, now operating in seven courtrooms across the county. Judge Fox commended the program for effectively diverting people from jail and saving lives and families.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the room — able to retire as a judge to work on these programs, instead of having to do the difficult work of putting people in prison,” said Judge Fox. “These courts are far and away the model courts for the country. The court system cares about these participants, and there’s no better work you can do than be part of helping people make changes in their lives.”

TASC Vice President of Operations Janelle Prueter spoke on behalf of TASC about how the program has helped hundreds of people involved in the criminal justice system to receive medical treatment and counseling instead of jail.

“Thanks to the judges for their vision and commitment to this work, and for ensuring that people with mental illness can be diverted from the system and get the help they need,” said Prueter. “Thanks to the clients, for the privilege of getting to do work and be of service to them. We honor the transformation they’ve achieved in their lives.”

Kimberly, who graduated from the program in 2009, was among several former clients who gave words of encouragement to the new graduates. With a former graduate and close friend standing at her side, she explained how the judge and TASC never gave up on her even when she seemed to lose all strength.

“I did TASC and was sober for six years,” said Kimberly. “But I didn’t want to face my other problems. I kept remembering TASC, and I called Pam (Ewing, TASC caseworker), and I got into Mental Health Court. And I realized they love me more than I love me. My advice to today’s graduates — when you fall down, never stay stuck.”

The mental health court was created in Cook County in 2004 as a plan for more effective and coordinated programs and services for people with mental illnesses. It focuses on facilitating communications and linking services across criminal justice, mental health and addiction treatment, and community services. Cook County’s program is distinctive because of its emphasis on systemic change, its selection of felony probationers with non-violent offenses as the target population, and its focus on post-adjudication services. It is funded by federal, state, and court grants.


Members of the Cook County Mental Health Court team (left to right): Director of Specialty Courts Judge Lawrence Fox; Assistant State’s Attorney Emily Cole; TASC Clinical Case Manager Rachel Wendt; Judge Thomas Gainer; Mental Health Probation Officer Michelle Hargon; TASC Clinical Supervisor Pam Ewing; and Judge Clayton Crane. (Photo: TASC)

Members of the Cook County Mental Health Court team (left to right): Director of Specialty Courts Judge Lawrence Fox; Assistant State’s Attorney Emily Cole; TASC Clinical Case Manager Rachel Wendt; Judge Thomas Gainer; Mental Health Probation Officer Michelle Hargon; TASC Clinical Supervisor Pam Ewing; and Judge Clayton Crane.
(Photo: TASC)





The Impact on Children of a Parent’s Incarceration

More American children than ever are experiencing life with at least one parent behind bars, with estimates ranging from 1.7 to 2.7 million children affected on any given day.[i],[ii] The Pew Charitable Trusts reported in 2010 that one in every 28 children in the U.S. has a parent behind bars, up from one in 125 just 25 years earlier.[iii] That’s an average of about one child in every classroom across the country.

The U.S. has the unseemly distinction of being the world’s leader in locking up its own residents, currently holding more than 2.3 million people in jail or prison.[iv]  These record incarceration rates affect growing numbers of parents and children. Between 1991 and midyear 2007, the number of parents held in state and federal prisons increased by 79%, and children of incarcerated parents increased by 80%.[v]

“We are living in a world where growing up with a parent in jail or prison is becoming a normal fact of life for too many children,” says Janelle Prueter, head of corrections reentry services for Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC), an Illinois nonprofit that provides statewide reentry case management and alternatives to incarceration.

As the numbers of parents and children affected by incarceration have increased, so too have the studies on the consequences of this phenomenon. In its March 2012 Psychological Bulletin, the American Psychological Association reported that, based on 40 studies on the impact of incarceration on children, antisocial behavior is the most pronounced risk for these children. “The most rigorous studies showed that parental incarceration is associated with higher risk for children’s antisocial behavior,” write Murray et al., “but not for mental health problems, drug use, or poor educational performance.”[vi]

In the April 2012 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, Johnson and Easterling concur that the unique impact of a parent’s incarceration is, as yet, undetermined. They note that it is difficult to single out the effects of incarceration as distinct from the other adversities these children face.[vii] For instance, people affected by incarceration also face disproportionate levels of poverty and addiction, as compared to the general population.

“In Illinois, thousands of children who have incarcerated parents are dealing with a parent’s addiction as well,” says Prueter, who oversees services for more than 6,000 substance-involved people each year who are in prison and on parole in Illinois.

Indeed, substance use disorders fuel the incarceration epidemic. According to the latest Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring data collected in 10 sites across the U.S., more than 60 percent of people arrested in 2011 tested positive for at least one illicit substance, with rates in Chicago and Sacramento topping 80 percent.[viii] Two thirds of incarcerated individuals meet the clinical criteria for substance addiction, but only 11 percent receive any kind of treatment.[ix]

“Having an incarcerated parent is an adverse childhood experience, and so is having an addicted parent,” says Peter Palanca, executive vice president of TASC and vice chair of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA). “We need to pay attention to what’s happening to these children. They need intervention and resources not only to help them get through their current circumstances in a pro-social way, but also to prevent them from experiencing poorer health and social problems later in their lives.”

The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study is an ongoing research effort of Kaiser Permanente and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Based on more than 17,000 health screenings of adults, it reveals “staggering proof of the health, social, and economic risks that result from childhood trauma.”[x]  The imprisonment of a parent is one of the childhood adversities measured in the 10-question survey. The higher a person’s ACE score, the stronger the likelihood that he or she will experience troubles such as alcoholism, illicit drug use, smoking, lung disease, liver disease, sexually transmitted diseases, and other negative health outcomes.

Stigma is a key factor associated with these adverse experiences, says Palanca. “As with children of alcoholics, children of incarcerated parents face a great deal of shame, guilt, and confusion. They need to have a voice, a safe way of expressing their thoughts and feelings about what’s happening.”

With more than 2,200 state and federal correctional facilities across the U.S., there are scant resources for the children of parents housed in these institutions. One program in Illinois is the Moms & Babies program at the Decatur Correctional Center, where mothers of newborns receive counseling and resources to help them learn healthy parenting skills. Focusing on incarcerated fathers, the National Fatherhood Initiative has developed the faith-based InsideOut Dadprogram, an evidence-based reentry model currently used in about two dozen correctional facilities across the country.

Once released from prison, people on parole need strong support in establishing new and positive connections with their communities and families. In Illinois–where 49,000 people are in state prisons and another 25,000 are on parole–Summits of Hope resource fairs provide information for men and women who have been released from state correctional facilities. Supported by the Illinois Department of Corrections and organized locally by community groups, service agencies, and government, these events offer individually-tailored guidance through information on parenting training, drug treatment, health screening, interviewing skills, and more.

Although resources for incarcerated parents and their children are scant compared to the need, these programs represent some of the trends toward acknowledging the scope and importance of the matter. The issue has garnered international awareness as well. In March 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution in support of children’s rights, with sections devoted to the issue of parental incarceration. [xi] The concept was originated in the U.S. by the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership, who defined this Bill of Rights for children of incarcerated parents:[xii]

1. I have the right to be kept safe and informed at the time of my parent’s arrest.

2. I have the right to be heard when decisions are made about me.

3. I have the right to be considered when decisions are made about my parent.

4. I have the right to be well-cared for in my parent’s absence.

5. I have the right to speak with, see, and touch my parent.6. I have the right to support as I face my parent’s incarceration.

7. I have the right not to be judged, blamed, or labeled because of my parent’s incarceration.

8. I have the right to a lifelong relationship with my parent.

The short-term and long-term consequences of a parent’s incarceration are still being studied, and will vary from child to child. What is becoming more recognized, however, is the fact that record numbers of children are being affected. 

“There’s so much more we all can do,” says Palanca. “A good place to start is understanding that children of incarcerated parents have a right to be heard and recognized. Teachers, counselors, youth workers, and faith leaders are uniquely positioned to notice what’s happening and provide extra support. We also need to better connect incarcerated parents with their children in a healthy ways. Every child in the world has a right to feel safe and loved.”


The bill of rights for children of incarcerated parents can be found at

For information on the impact of addiction on children and families, visit

For further information on TASC’s reentry services in Illinois, visit

[i] National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated. (2009). Children and families of the incarcerated fact sheet.  Retrieved 22 May 2012 from

[ii] The Pew Charitable Trusts, (2010). Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility. Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts.

[iii] ibid.

[iv] Human Rights Watch. (2012.) World Report 2012: United States.  Retrieved 19 October 2012 from

[v] Glaze, L. E. & Maruschak, L. M. (2008, August). Parents in prison and their minor children. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Special Report. NCJ 222984.

[vi] Murray, J., Farrington, D. P. & Sekol, I. (2012, March). Children’s antisocial behavior, mental health, drug use, and educational performance after parental incarceration: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 138(2), 175-210.

[vii] Johnson, E. & Easterling, B. (2012, April). Understanding unique effects of parental incarceration on children: Challenges, progress, and recommendations. Journal of Marriage and Family. Vol. 74(2), 342-356.

[viii] Office of National Drug Control Policy. (2012, May 17). New survey results show majority of adult males arrested in 10 U.S. cities test positive for illegal drugs at time of arrest. (Press release). Retrieved 24 May 2012 from

[ix] The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. (2010, February 26). New CASA report finds 65 percent of all U.S. inmates meet medical criteria for substance abuse addiction, only 11 percent receive any treatment. (Press release). Retrieved 22 May 2012 from

[x] The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. Retrieved 24 May 2012 from

[xi] Sentencing Project. (2012, March 27). Bill of rights for children of incarcerated parents. Retrieved 24 May 2012 from

[xii]San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents. Retrieved 24 May 2012 from

 Contributed by Daphne Baille, director of communications for TASC

Illinois “Summits of Hope” Offer Positive Community Connections for People on Probation and Parole

Contributors: Janelle Prueter, Linda Gatson-Rowe, and Sandy Kiehna, TASC, Inc.

(Chicago and Marion, IL) — Across Illinois, about 40,000 men and women each year try to find their way again in society after being released from in prison. About half will return to prison within three years.[i]

In a state where unemployment rates hover near 10 percent, people who have been incarcerated find it especially challenging to secure a steady job. (See In These Times article on employment challenges for people with criminal records.) Without work or a legal source of income, without housing or a stable place to live, without community support or positive peer and family relationships, the chances for successful reentry are diminished.

And that’s just the beginning. Attempts at successful reentry can be further obstructed by a host of health issues, ranging from dental pain to drug addiction to depression. Untreated trauma, stigma, discrimination, and insufficient problem-solving skills may factor in as well.

Local communities play a key role when it comes to reducing recidivism. They are natural allies and beneficiaries in recidivism reduction efforts because these efforts translate to less crime.

This is where “Summits of Hope” come in.

Summits of Hope are day-long resource fairs where formerly incarcerated men and women can find information and services that will help them reconnect to their communities and become responsible members of society. Introduced in Mt. Vernon in 2009 through a partnership between the Parole Division of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), the Jackson County Health Department HIV Services, and other local agencies, there are now a number of such summits held throughout the year in community settings across Illinois.

The purpose of the Summits of Hope is to enhance public safety through reduced recidivism. Each summit is an invitation-only event for people on parole and/or probation in the community where the summit is held. Organized by local agencies and volunteers, in partnership with community service vendors and several divisions of Illinois government, the summits offer a one-stop environment where participants can obtain the necessary assistance to begin to move past common barriers to success. Each local area forms a committee that spearheads the event, and the IDOC parole unit ensures that all events are consistent throughout the state. TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities) has helped plan and participate in each summit since they began.

Upon arriving at a local summit, each participant is assisted by a counselor or volunteer who guides the parolee through the maze of services and exhibits, focusing on those resources that are most pertinent to that individual. Resources include free HIV testing and service linkage, social services, shelters, food, clothing, mental health, substance abuse treatment, recovery support, education, job training, free or low cost medical, child care, college and adult education, assistance programs for utilities, transportation, and more. On-site services include the Secretary of State Mobile Unit to issue state identification cards (usually $20, but often underwritten by local organizations at each summit), medical screenings, H1N1 and other vaccinations, haircuts, mobile food pantries with clothing and other items, and demonstrations on how to dress for success.

People released from prison usually leave with no more than their private possessions and about $10. Most don’t have driver’s licenses or state identification cards, which are essential when it comes to applying for jobs or renting a place to live. By contrast, men and women leaving a Summit of Hope are likely to have a new state ID card, health screening results, appointment reminders, and a bag filled with information on agencies and community groups that offer help.

Between February 2010 and March 2012, more than a dozen Illinois communities hosted a total of 31 summits, reaching 5,871 men and women on parole or probation. Of these, more than 1,000 have received a state identification card and even more have received free HIV testing. In addition, the summits have offered hundreds of medical check-ups, blood pressure checks, H1N1 shots, and other vital services.

“Events like this give hope to clients who felt like they were all alone in their struggle,” says Tommie Johnson, recovery support services coordinator for TASC. Johnson helps set up peer-supported Winners Circles across Illinois for people who deal with the dual stigma of being in recovery from addiction and having a criminal record. For his ongoing work in establishing peer support groups for long-term recovery and success, he received the 2011 Unsung Hero Award from the Winners’ Circle Peer Support Network of Texas.

The Summits of Hope have received recognition for their innovative and generous efforts to support successful reentry. These awards include the 2009 Illinois Department of Public Health Takin’ it to the Streets’ Award for Innovative Outreach Programs; the 2010 Illinois Senate Recognition Award for Re-Entry; the 2010 Illinois Governor’s Gold Star Award for Re-Entry; the 2010 Federal Probation Award of Recognition; and the 2011 Model Practice Award from National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO).

Even more than the awards, participants’ comments convey the need for and value of these summits. “Everything” was a common answer when attendees were asked what they liked most about their summit experience. Many expressed appreciation for the volunteers who walked them through the exhibits and resources. “My volunteer made sure I got all the information I needed,” wrote one participant. Another wrote, “Getting information on school and the diapers they gave me helped a lot, passing [the] drug test, everything, I am now more confident in getting a job.”

For most, the operative words were “thank you,” as in this reflection from a participant: ”Everybody treated me nice! Keep things going for the good of all, KEEP DOING THIS!!! WELL DONE!!”

Upcoming Summits of Hope will take place in Chicago, Rock Island, and Marion, Illinois. Please visit the Summit of Hope website to learn more about the summits, read participant feedback, and find out how you can volunteer or contribute to upcoming events.


Janelle Prueter is the director of statewide corrections and reentry services for TASC. Linda Gatson-Rowe is administrator over several of TASC’s corrections reentry programs in northern Illinois, and Sandy Kiehna administers reentry programs in southern Illinois.

[i] Pew Center on the States. (2011, April). State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons. Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, p. 10.