A new program that assists people who are struggling with behavioral health issues and offers an alternative to jail is making a difference in Walla Walla County, officials said.

In its first six months, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, or LEAD, helped find permanent housing for nine people.

Twenty four people were successfully enrolled and actively participating in mental health services, six people gained employment and 26 individuals received substance use disorder services — five of whom entered rehab and successfully moved on from an inpatient substance abuse setting, LEAD’s program manager Lindsey Fuchs said Wednesday.

LEAD is a collaborative program between Walla Walla’s Comprehensive Healthcare and Blue Mountain Heart to Heart that provides an alternative to incarceration.

Its goal is to provide intensive case management services to individuals in the community who are struggling with behavioral health needs.

It aims to help people experiencing homelessness, poverty, as well as those who continue to end up in the justice system for low-level crimes, Fuchs said.

Participants are encouraged to identify services they believe would benefit them best, and LEAD case workers work with them to meet those needs. It’s geared toward people with low-level offenses.

“We like to say if LEAD is a good fit for them, not if they are a good fit for LEAD,” Fuchs said.

“(Those) charges are often for misdemeanors, which are often results of mental health issues, substance abuse disorders, homelessness, poverty, etc. It all kind of intertwines. So, we ask, why are they committing these crimes? Maybe they’re stealing food because they don’t have food. So, we’re going to help them access food.”

The program started hiring staff in September 2020, and started seeing clients in January.

In its first three months, LEAD received 122 referrals, way more than the group anticipated.

“We were only planning to have 80 referrals,” Fuchs said.

How it works

Individuals are often referred to LEAD by the prosecutor’s office, local law enforcement agencies, courts or community partners.

Participants might have unmet behavioral health needs, be homeless or otherwise in need of additional support. Potential candidates are vetted to make sure they are eligible for services.

Once in the program, individuals are assigned one of four case managers from either Comprehensive Health or Blue Mountain Heart to Heart based on their needs.

Of the 122 referrals LEAD received in its first three months, 114 were approved for the program. Of those 114 approved, 74 were successfully supported, meaning they participated in the LEAD services provided to them.

The other 40 chose not to participate, Fuchs said. LEAD is a voluntary program.

Out of those 74 people in the program’s initial six months, LEAD case managers provided 988 services, which far exceeded what the group expected in its first months of providing services.

Comprehensive Healthcare and Blue Mountain Heart to Heart work together to provide services for these individuals, implementing the strengths of their respective organizations.

The LEAD operation work group conducts biweekly meetings to collaborate on methods to best support community members that have been referred, Fuchs said.

This work group is responsible for vetting clients, which involves perusing potential clients’ histories and ensuring that they don’t have violent offenses or anything else that would make them ineligible to enter the program.

Law enforcement officers and prosecutors provide the criminal history of potential program participants.

Depends on charges

The Walla Walla County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office plays a key role, referring people who might qualify for the program based on the nature of their charges.

People who have been charged with low-level offenses may be eligible.

If someone has serious, violent, or sex offenses on their record, they are not recommended to be in the program, Prosecuting Attorney Jim Nagle said Wednesday.

If a referral comes from another entity and that individual is deemed unfit for the program, the prosecutor’s office or law enforcement will notify LEAD that that person’s charges cannot be diverted.

That is always the case when someone has a pending felony or felony history, Nagle said.

One of LEAD’s case managers, Shay Hoffman of Blue Mountain Heart to Heart, agrees that the program seeks to stop the cycle of re-committing low-level offenses.

“They may just need a break, or need a little restart to their lives,” Hoffman told the U-B in January.

“A lot of them are going around with undiagnosed mental health issues and they are coming into contact with police and police may not know what to do. We are hoping to add more support and help them from becoming frequent flyers.”

LEAD serves people in Walla Walla County who are 18 and older, but frequently takes referrals from other areas on a continuous basis, Fuchs said.

If someone participates in the program, becomes successful, and somewhere down the line relapses, loses their housing or needs services again, they can come back to the program.

LEAD meets people where they are at and works collaboratively with them to set new goals.

“We joke that once you’re in LEAD, you’re always in LEAD,” Fuchs said. “We’re always going to be there.”

LEAD is funded through a grant from the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs, and the program’s contract has been renewed through June 2022.

Emily Solomon can be reached at emilysolomon@wwub.com.

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