Offenders and mental health issues

Responsible for the supervision and rehabilitation of person who are on community-based Court Orders and Parole Licences, an objective of the Department of Community Rehabilitation, formerly known as the Probation Aftercare Unit, is to ‘assist our clients to be more productive citizens while reducing the level of offending behaviours and promoting public safety’, with the hope that such clients will ‘function in the community without involving themselves in further criminal activities.’

A still young yet rapidly growing department, DCR consists of a director, two senior probation officers, 10 probation officers (five for Summary and Grand Court related supervision and services, two Drug Court Probation Officers, three for Through and After Care services), two community service coordinators, and three Administration staff in Grand Cayman and one probation officer in Cayman Brac.

It’s not always the easiest job, but the management and staff of DCR is committed to assisting offenders with making positive changes in their lives. This work and this commitment are not for the sole benefit of any one person, but when positive changes happen, it is for the benefit of the entire community.

Services of DCR are offered in many forms through: the preparation of pre-sentencing reports for the courts and home background reports for the Parole Board, development and implementation of educational and harm reduction groups and programmes, supervision of community-based Court orders and parole licenses and maintaining a collaborative approach with other agencies, to name a few.

Working with offenders in general has its challenges. However, one of the more complex aspects of a probation officer’s job is having to supervise an offender who also presents with a mental health illness.

DCR’s efforts to maintain a collaborative approach with other agencies is a consistent one and is especially critical when working with this population. The department must rely heavily on partner agencies such as The Counseling Centre, the Mental Health Department, the Department of Children and Family Services, the police, etc, in order to be more effective.

Mainly owing to the lack of resources available, DCR and its partner agencies share a number of setbacks when trying to effectively work with persons appearing before the Courts, who are also diagnosed with a mental health illness.

One major factor that impacts the ability of probation officers to work with offenders with mental health issues is non-compliance with the supervision process. However, we recognise that compliance with treatment is first a priority as it is the root cause of the offending behaviours and if the client is mentally stable they are then more able to comply with the orders of the Court.

Dr. Marc Lockhart expanded on this issue further by stating that there is ‘a lack of any provisions in the law for outpatient treatment commitment… [which] involves a court order requiring a patient to follow a treatment plan. The treatment plan may include participation in self-help groups, psychotherapy, medication, and may require supervised living and urine/blood tests. Non-compliance may result in inpatient commitment or forced compliance and/or re-incarceration.’

Another challenge is sufficient family and community support, which we realize may happen for a number of reasons. There is frequently an element of denial as many persons do not want to believe that a family member has mental health issues and there is some measure of minimization when a mentally ill family member commits a criminal offence.

Secondly, family members or friends are at times, not educated about the illness, thus are not capable of providing appropriate support to the client, which does not allow for successfully managing of the illness. As a result, the risk of re-offending increases significantly for that client.

The issue of dual diagnosed offenders (clients with both mental illness and substance abuse issues) is especially a challenge as there are two areas to target.

Challenges around the focus of treatment (drug abuse vs. offending behaviour vs. mental health issues) surface, which then complicate the supervision process for these clients that much more.

The Department recognises that a closer working relationship between agencies as well as sharing of information across the board to include the client, partner agencies, and family/community members could allow for more effective work with this population.

As a result, for the Department’s third Annual Probation and Parole Week (21 – 28 September), we have chosen the theme: ‘Exploring Creative Partnerships for Offenders with Mental Health Issues’.

The Department hopes to bring to light the challenges that we face when working with offenders with mental health issues and we will attempt to take a collaborative approach to the issue by exploring options such as the possibility of a Mental Health Court while seeking guidance from key agencies and the community.

The Department has already gotten positive response from agencies and critical persons such as Mr. Lockhart, who recognises the importance of greater communication on a whole and believes that ‘the formation of a permanent committee composed of probation, family services, the Royal Cayman Islands Police and mental health to specifically address issues with offenders we treat/manage in common’ could be of great benefit if the Cayman Islands hopes to address this issue.

Teresa Echenique-Bowen, director of DCR shares, ‘Ignore the problem and it will not go away. Lock them away and they will eventually come out. This is not an issue for one person, one family or one department, but rather the concern that is being addressed this year in P&P Week, is one that should be an issue and a concern for our entire island. Each person in our community must play a role if we are to truly see changes.

‘We have the opportunity to learn from other jurisdictions around us, what works and what does not work and hence the reason that we have invited two excellent speakers to present at our Conference on the role of a Mental Health Court. I can’t tell you at this time that this is a suitable option for the Cayman Islands, but it is definitely one worth exploring, if our people will reap the benefit in the long run!’

Probation officers are, from left, back row, Tracey Thompson-Johnson, Cleviston Hunte, Marvalee Collins and Herbert Tomlinson. Middle row from left are Melissa Ebanks, Natasha Williams, Maxine Anglin and Judye Mobley. Seated, from left, are Marvo Callender andKarene Bramwell-Smith. Photo: Jewel Levy

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