Planning Underway for Crisis/Diversion Facility in Orange County

By Ruthie Kesri

Plans for a novel Crisis/Diversion facility are currently underway in Orange County. The facility, which will be dedicated to providing behavioral health crisis services and criminal justice diversion, will be the first of its kind in the county.

“We have so many good things in place here,” said Caitlin Fenhagen, the Director of the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department. “But what are the things that are really preventing us from doing more to keep people out of this system, divert them away from the system once they are in, or help them after they have been in the system? We found that one of the most significant gaps is that [Orange County] does not have a crisis/diversion facility.”

One of the hopes for the facility is to address “where law enforcement can divert” people suffering from behavioral health crises. Tony Marimpietri, who is leading the project, said current diversion programs do not allow law enforcement officers on the scene “a place to go” when a person is in crisis.

With the establishment of a crisis center, people are “deflected from both the emergency department and from jail,” Marimpietri added. “There are limitations in community-based crisis services.” Indeed, hospitals suffer from “an access issue, with limited capacity and often limited discharge planning.”

Regarding jail time, limitations include insufficient clinical services within the Detention Center to treat someone experiencing a behavioral health crisis, a limited number of screening tools, and the potential exacerbation of mental health symptoms a person may face while incarcerated. Further, there is limited physical space in the Detention Center for additional programming and a lack of designated housing for persons with mental illness and/or substance use diagnoses.

“[The Crisis/Diversion facility] is specifically focused on diverting people from the criminal justice system where it is possible and deflecting them from the criminal justice system where it is safe to do so,” said Fenhagen, elaborating that they hope the facility achieves this through “pre-trial reform work, therapeutic interventions for people who do have to remain in custody,” 24/7 behavioral health urgent care, non-hospitalization detoxification services, urgent Medical Care Services (to allow non-life-threatening conditions to be treated at the Facility), on-site pharmacy services to support stabilization and initial treatment, and over 40 more recommendations.

Project organizers are aware of how there are currently not any national standards for crisis services. Embracing the core objective of this model along with other social justice reform motivations, organizers have researched and interviewed representatives of a dozen operating and planned facilities.

Ultimately, this project will enhance the current crisis response to better serve individuals by providing them with quality care in the most appropriate setting, all while benefiting stakeholders who engage with individuals in crisis by facilitating alternative responses that save time and money, resulting in better, more equitable outcomes for all parties involved.

Fenhagen said there is not yet a timetable for building the crisis center. The full report and recommendation is being presented to the Orange County Board of County Commissioners Thursday (April 22).

"We hope to have support for moving forward with the next steps, including contracting for a detailed design plan," she said. "Tony and I have previously presented to all the chiefs of law enforcement, the Behavioral Health Task Force and the Justice Advisory Council and have received strong support. We are also presenting to the Carrboro Town Council on May 11th. We hope for municipal government support to move forward with the next phase of detailed planning.”

Ruthie Kesri is an undergraduate student at Duke University working this semester with the Wilson Center for Science and Justice.