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After the Washtenaw County Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage passed, a partnership began between Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH) and Washtenaw County Children’s Services—a county facility that provides temporary custody and care for juveniles who have come into contact with the justice system.
With millage funding secured, the organizations discussed the need to better serve youth with behavioral health needs and decided to add an embedded mental health professional at the facility.
Gina VanDuinen, who serves in that capacity, is a licensed master's social worker at WCCMH who previously worked as a home-based therapist. She sees her new role—a mental health professional situated within Children’s Services—as more flexible and efficient, with less red tape and paperwork.
“It’s less about chasing down people for signatures and making sure people don’t get kicked off Medicaid,” says VanDuinen. “It allows us to do the actual work with kids, families, and the systems they’re in.”
Fostering useful collaborations
VanDuinen works closely with community organizations that might also be serving the youth she sees at Children’s Services. She communicates regularly with several organizations, including Black Family Development at the Juvenile Court, My Brother’s Keeper at the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, Child Protective Services at MDHHS, and the Washtenaw County Intermediate School District (WISD).
“The schools are so important because we have all kinds of data about the school-to-prison pipeline,” notes VanDuinen.
In her role, VanDuinen collaborates with staff from various disciplines and backgrounds—probation officers, psychiatrists, case managers, housing specialists, social workers—helping bridge service gaps, coordinate care, and provide support for her clients and their families.
One of VanDuinen’s contacts within the schools is Darnesha Pickens, a school social worker with WISD. Pickens has a breadth of experience from working in multiple settings—prisons, hospitals—before coming to schools. She notes that schools are “the one system that has everybody in it”—and where it’s easier to spot early warning signs.
The collaboration with Children’s Services, says Pickens, helps both organizations keep track of youth in need and allows VanDuinen to develop rapport with youth earlier. She also notes a change in receptiveness from seeing youth in their element as opposed to an office.
“A lot of the kids don't think they're in therapy,” Pickens continues, which can make them feel more at ease to talk and work through their issues. “I think it's unique what we're doing with this partnership.”
Overcoming historic organizational barriers
Since the millage passed and more cross-sector partnerships were funded, VanDuinen notes “increased transparency and communication” between the many organizations that are serving justice-involved youth.
“For so long, [we] were operating in silos,” explains VanDuinen. “And that’s not how families and people exist.” By having a full picture of youth and family needs, VanDuinen can secure the support and services they require.
Liz Spring, the program administrator for Youth and Family Services, agrees—noting that the new partnerships have helped increase understanding of each others’ organizations, services, and staff, ultimately allowing them to better meet youth needs.
“We’re all communicating around youth needs and a treatment plan,” says Spring. “We have a much better understanding than before—because we’re all invested.” Spring also notes that the collaboration allows organizations to understand a client’s history and connect things, instead of starting over.
The increased collaboration has also helped in other ways. Staff may have once perceived youth as “belonging” to a certain system—which can reinforce separation and discourage action. But Spring says that she now hears people saying "these are ‘our kids’—not a ‘court kid’ or a ‘community mental health kid.”
Helping youth and families heal
Judy Thurman, a licensed master’s social worker and mental health therapist with WCCMH’s Youth and Family Services, works closely with court-involved youth via Washtenaw County’s Juvenile Court. Certified in trauma-focused therapy, she offers trauma-informed treatment to those referred.
Her co-located position, split between the court and WCCMH, was created two years ago with millage funding.
Thurman, who regularly serves 20 clients at a time, classifies her kids as those “who’ve violated probation or who the court feels need individual, trauma-focused therapy.”
“It’s been difficult at times,” continues Thurman, referring to increased levels of isolation and domestic violence—particularly during COVID-19—“but it’s a program that’s definitely needed” and one that, Thurman believes, will break the cycle of recidivism.
Thurman says it’s important for people to understand that the parents of justice-involved youth are often in need of help as well.
“It’s not always just the child who has issues,” she notes. “A lot of parents are victims themselves. And they may need help—such as housing assistance and other financial things.” Thurman works with the parents directly and also with the millage-supported SURE Moms program, which helps families of those incarcerated navigate the justice system and heal.
Similar to VanDuinen, Thurman is a link to other resources in the community—collaborating with community partners like Ozone House, Corner Health, the Regional Alliance for Healthy Schools (RAHS), and many others.
“Now, kids are getting connected to more services,” Thurman says, referring to Black Family Development, a new organization brought in by the Juvenile Court to support youth and families with socioeconomic and community needs, which is offering a new day program for repeat offenders who can’t make it to school and need help with job skills training.
Thurman also taps into the Student Advocacy Center for youth who need school services and mentorship. “A lot of my Black males need mentors,” she says, “and they have great ones.” And she works with Washtenaw My Brother’s Keeper, an organization that is “doing innovative things through music, cultivating self-esteem.”
“There’s a lot of interconnected partnerships now,” she says. “It’s solidifying relationships in the home and helping kids.”
Partnerships work both ways
Another important resource for Thurman is Our House—an organization serving youth and young adults, aged 14 to 26, who have been in foster care.
The organization’s executive director, Natasha Doan-Motsinger, notes that Our House clients have diverse needs, ranging from education and employment to stable housing..
“It’s very difficult for someone to be emotionally stable if they're not housed,” says Doan-Motsinger, something she describes as “not easy or affordable” in Washtenaw County.
Nationally, one in five youth who have left foster care will be incarcerated within the first two years after they leave the system—demonstrating why organizations like Our House are an important partner for WCCMH.
While Thurman utilizes Our House as a resource for conflict resolution training and help transitioning to independent living, Doan-Motsinger uses WCCMH and the millage-funded 24/7 CARES line [734-544-3050] to get help for youth who have experienced trauma and need support.
She notes that, nationally, while only about 20 percent of foster kids with mental health concerns seek care, among Our House clients, that number is closer to 80 percent. “We can provide a supportive, warm hand-off to them [at WCCMH],” she says. “It’s collaborative.”
Thurman notes that finding the right “fit” for youth—whether a program or residential placement—can look very different for each case.
Spring concurs. “It’s really looking at the voice and choice of that youth and family,” she says. “There’s a real effort to engage families, too—understanding what their strengths are and how we can best support them.”
The partnerships are key to making strength-based connections happen for youth and families.
“People are more willing to do things differently,” says Spring. “For example, a youth was on a waiting list to go to residential services. All of the partners worked together and identified the services they could provide. We came up with an individualized plan—working with the mom and the youth and a mentor from My Brother’s Keeper.”
“The youth was interested in music,” she continues. “So we were able to get them a job working in a recording studio. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and that was just amazing. I couldn’t stop smiling after the call. I had to celebrate that.”
Millage dollars are flexible
One of the biggest assets of millage funding is flexibility. Historically, WCCMH could only serve youth and families actively enrolled in Medicaid with a formal diagnosis of serious emotional disturbance.
“The millage isn’t bound by extra requirements that don’t add value to a person’s situation,” says Spring. “So now, if a kid needs help, we can talk to a family without a formal eligibility assessment. It’s much more engaging. Less intimidating.”
“When kids experience something like a mental health crisis in school or if they’re in the detention center, they’re not thinking, ‘I have a problem and I'm going to go to WCCMH,” explains Spring. “The millage allows us to engage early, identify what’s going on—before the point that it’s a recognized mental illness and so much has already happened.”
VanDuinen notes that while these flexible funds have helped her reach more youth and families, she gives voice to continued challenges—including the need for funding and resources that keep justice-involved youth in community-based settings, outside of confinement.
“As we shift away from keeping kids confined, we’re relying more on community-based support,” says VanDuinen. “But we need to put more money and resources into them so that they can do what we know works.”
Story by Gregory Powers