S.D. law officers and courts try a new approach for people with mental-health challenges

Capitol News Bureau
KELO gavel court law

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — People from South Dakota courts, law enforcement, mental health care and a well-known charity gathered at the state Capitol on Thursday to announce a $1 million pilot for 23 counties to use technology to reach outside behavioral counselors for help in difficult situations.

The conversation that led to what’s being called virtual crisis care took place two years ago between Walter Panzirer and state Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson during the last pheasant hunt that Dennis Daugaard hosted as governor.

Panzirer, a board member for The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust and a former law enforcement officer, offered on that October day to see what could be done.

Gilbertson had already been steering South Dakota’s state courts into better addressing root issues behind crimes such as drug abuse, drunk driving and veterans’ problems.

But the hole that couldn’t be easily filled in a state where cattle outnumber people was the lack of mental health services in many areas.

Law enforcement has spent thousands of man-hours on the highways in the past decade transporting people for mental-health evaluations at the state hospital at Yankton or the health care systems in Sioux Falls and Rapid City.

The Legislature meanwhile was finishing the first of what has now become three years of increasingly detailed study of mental-health issues and action, with Senator Deb Soholt, a Sioux Falls Republican who works for Avera Health, serving as the guide.

One result of this combined effort is the new system hosted by Avera eCARE, where sheriffs and police can use portable computer tablets and local internet service to video-conference from the field with mental-health professionals when people with complex mental-health issues need help.

Butte County is one of the rural areas in South Dakota already doing video-conferences. Sheriff Fred Lamphere said his department has two tablets and the Belle Fourche police have two. The availability of on-call counseling saves his staff many hours of driving and paperwork, he said.

The Helmsley-funded pilot is scheduled to run through June 2021. Matthew Stanley, a psychiatrist for Avera, said the goal is to get the tablets and related hardware in all 66 counties.

“Today,” Panzirer said, “in mental health, unfortunately, is the only medical disorder that could end a person up in jail. It could end (up) a person not getting the proper treatment. To me, it’s unheard of to end up in a detention facility. Just think about it — that’s the only disorder. Heart attacks, you go to the hospital. It should be the same for a complete mental-health breakdown. People need the mental health care access and help, and that’s what this program’s going to do.”

State courts administrator Greg Sattizahn, who moderated the announcement event, told KELOLAND News that the courts system likely would ask the Legislature for funding this winter to carry on the program and to make services available statewide, assuming that the pilot is a success.

Sattizahn said the savings need to be documented, so legislators can understand the dollars and cents as well as the potential of better care closer to home.

South Dakota’s state courts system has gradually expanded to include 10 that focus on drugs, four on DWI and three on veterans. The two mental-health courts are in Sioux Falls and Rapid City. A mental-health task force created by the Legislature this year holds its first meeting August 4.

Chief Justice Gilbertson said the new approach could “revolutionize” the court system in South Dakota because so many people involved in a case will benefit from knowing whether the defendant is a threat to allow in the community on probation and how to handle the person.

“If it works here, we are a laboratory for the other states. There’s no reason, if it works here, it can’t work anywhere else,” Gilbertson said.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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