Una respuesta para el grito de auxilio de la comunidad Latina:

En mayo, una compañía privada que controla los dólares públicos para la salud mental en Orange County, Alliance Health, ha prometido $500,000 para apoyar la crisis de salud mental en la comunidad Latina. Este dinero ayudará a implementar un programa que se llama Strong Minds, para formar a los miembros de la comunidad en primeros auxilios de salud mental mientras la compañía está trabajando en contratar terapeutas bilingües. El dinero también apoyará el regreso multifásico de la clínica de terapia El Futuro.

Por otro lado, el fiscal de distrito de Orange y Chatham County, Jeff Nieman, ha prometido continuar su progreso en la reforma de la justicia penal, especialmente con su priorización del desvío y el tratamiento sobre el encarcelamiento por problemas de salud mental y uso de sustancias.

At an Orange County community meeting last month, Diana Huerta was one of dozens of Latino residents in attendance whose grito de auxilio, or cry for help, has been answered—at least in part.

A Mexican woman who has lived in the United States for more than half her life, Huerta lost a loved one to suicide eight years ago. Far from home, she said she experiences panic attacks and depression. When she reached out to the area’s bilingual therapy clinic, El Futuro, she was met with a long waiting list. She couldn’t pay for private treatment, and was dealing with her struggles alone.

“Can you imagine…a person in crisis, they come knocking on your door, only to be told there’s a huge waiting list,” Huerta said in Spanish. “The crisis shouldn’t exist in the first place…it was caused by the people in power…they created a crisis.”

Diana Huerta Credit: Ivan Parra

At the May 11 assembly at Chapel Hill’s St. Thomas More Catholic Church, of which Huerta is a member, more than 300 residents in attendance in person and via Zoom learned the good news: Alliance Health—a private managed care organization (MCO) that serves uninsured residents and those who receive Medicaid in six counties, including Orange, Durham, and Wake—pledged $500,000 to support mental health services in the Latino community in Orange County. 

The pledge comes a year after the people in power Huerta references—another MCO, Cardinal Innovations, Alliance Health’s predecessor—dissolved after overpaying its CEO and board members and denying Medicaid reimbursements to undocumented immigrants, effectively ignoring a mental health crisis it had a hand in creating. 

The Latino community in attendance wanted to be sure Alliance Health wouldn’t do the same thing, and the pledge was received as a good first step. As people of all ages filled rows of chairs and huddled against the far wall of the church room, shoulder to shoulder, Sean Schreiber, Alliance Health’s chief operating officer, reaffirmed that the new organization responsible for their health care was taking steps to be accountable to the people it serves. 

The money, Schreiber explained, would be used to implement an initiative called the Strong Minds program, which trains community members in mental health first aid, providing support while hiring and retaining bilingual therapists. It also plans a multi-phase return of El Futuro, which saw its Carrboro location close in 2015.

In the meantime, Schreiber said, the MCO is working to strengthen its relationships with the community.

“What we’re doing now is really developing strong partnerships with the county leadership, with stakeholder groups in the community and advocates, and working with them to understand what the needs are and hearing what the community wants,” Schreiber says.

A full house at the accountability assembly at St. Thomas More Catholic Church on May 11 in Chapel Hill Credit: Ivan Parra

Orange County Justice United (OCJU), a nonprofit that works to address local issues between residents and those in power, and the North Carolina Congress of Latino Organizations organized the public accountability assembly. In addition to the announcement from Alliance Health, residents heard updates from Orange and Chatham County District Attorney Jeff Nieman at the meeting, a follow-up to another assembly held last year when Nieman was running for the seat and made campaign commitments to the very same residents. 

Last year’s DA race marked the first time in a generation that there was a competitive election for the position in Orange County, which gave OCJU the opportunity to highlight community issues at the candidate assembly, says Rev. Dr. George Crews III, a pastor and OCJU leader. 

“We knew we had a great opportunity that we could get in and really get our foot in the door, so that we can have some sort of influence to those candidates to say, ‘Hey, these are some things that we’re needing in the community and this is what the people are saying,’” Crews continues.

Last April, Nieman committed to several proposals (see box) from OCJU to reform Orange County’s criminal justice system. 

Criminal Justice Reform Proposals

Make diversion the rule—emphasize treatment over incarceration for mental health and substance use issues

Choose diversion over prosecution for drug possession for personal use/paraphernalia 

Provide mass relief for driver’s license suspensions due to failure to pay fees and fines

Create a sentencing review process to determine if sentencing relief is appropriate for previously tried cases that led to incarceration 

Recommend no bail/bond unless a person presents a risk to themselves or others

Create a publicly available resource guide, including information on diversion options and DA office principles 

Implement data tracking for racial disparities 

Continue the diversion program for safe drivers without a license

Hold follow-up meetings in six months and one year of taking office

Now, five months into his term, Nieman reaffirmed his commitment to the proposals. 

“The commitments that I was asked to make, I assure you, align with what my commitments were to myself and the community I grew up in when I ran for district attorney,” Nieman said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t still need a push—so I appreciate it.”

The push paid off. 

Nieman’s office has made progress in fulfilling the commitments, especially around enhanced diversion practices that direct people with mental health struggles and substance use issues into treatment and other alternatives to incarceration. 

Nieman emphasized his work with Orange County’s Outreach Court, a therapeutic court for people experiencing homelessness that he helped launch a decade ago and the first of its kind in North Carolina. Another initiative is the county’s Community Resource Court, which assists defendants with mental health diagnoses by offering them a treatment plan that, upon completion, rewards participants with legal benefits like dismissal of charges.

These courts often refer justice-involved people to programs such as the Formerly Incarcerated Transition (FIT) Program, which helps formerly incarcerated residents with chronic illnesses connect with healthcare services and readjust to life outside of prison. 

Tommy Green, who was formerly incarcerated and now works as the Orange County FIT program manager, says he sees growth in clients after their participation in the program.

“When I first met them through the FIT program, one client had a history of multiple incarcerations, they hadn’t been more than 90 days sober in the last probably three or four years, and they [were] homeless,” Green says. “Now, this guy has his own place, he’s been sober for over a year, and hasn’t had a charge since he’s been in the program.”

Nieman also reported progress on bail and bond reform. While North Carolina doesn’t ban cash bail at the state level, Nieman said his office is moving in that direction by making pretrial release the rule. Orange County only detains people who pose a risk to themselves or others.

“It’s fundamentally undemocratic for the decision over whether someone is in jail or out of jail awaiting trial to depend on how much money they have,” Nieman says.

Orange and Chatham County District Attorney Jeff Nieman Credit: Ivan Parra

Nieman also promises to continue the program he formed seven years ago for safe drivers without a license, oftentimes due to immigration status.  

Crews says the most important part of these meetings is ensuring that everyone has a voice.

“We had white brothers and sisters, Black brothers and sisters, Latino brothers and sisters—everybody was coming together, because this is an issue,” Crews says. “Everybody, regardless of race, color, creed, or religion, has to deal with the court system in Orange County, whether it’s just a ticket, driving without a license, or whether it is drug charges. We all sometimes have to deal with it, and we want to make sure that when we stand before the DA or the judge, that we’re getting a fair shake.”

The meeting was over, but the work wasn’t. OCJU always knew that would be the case, Crews says.

“We don’t go in thinking that it is going to be a slam dunk,” Crews says. “We know that this is going to be work and we’re all committed to continuing to work hard.”

And for OCJU, much of that work means following up with leaders and organizations to ensure that their words turn into actions. There’s already another assembly on the calendar with Nieman, scheduled for one year into his term.

“They keep us firm to our commitments,” said Schreiber, from Alliance Health. “And we know darn well that if we don’t live up to our commitments, we’re going to hear about it.”

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

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