Lexington court program helps bring troubled lives into balance

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) – A little known court in Lexington is changing lives, even in the midst of some of the most difficult situations imaginable.

The people who come to this special court face complicated mental challenges, drug problems, and troubles with the law. (Photo: WKYT/Sam Dick)

The people who come to this special court are dealing with complicated mental challenges. Most also have drug problems and trouble with the law. Getting them into a more stable, safe, and drug-free life can take years.

The court isn’t set up in a typical manner. There’s a district court judge, and it’s held in a courtroom – but that’s where the similarities end. There’s no jury, no prosecutor, and no defense attorney.

That’s just the way it is in Fayette County’s Mental Health Diversion Court. The court convenes every Monday afternoon. The people who come here have been referred by police, attorneys, and support specialists. Connie Milligan helped start the court four- years ago.

"People come homeless, they come in without treatment, without medication, often they're in unsafe relationships, and they're lives are just circling the drain," says Milligan.

All of the clients have suffered some form of trauma, like child sexual abuse. They face criminal charges, substance abuse, and serious mental illness.

"We know that people are now going to improve or get better, by rotating through jail in the court system. It just doesn't work. What we're able to do through the Mental Health Court, is wrap our arms around people by providing treatment, case management, and peer support."

So there is no quick fix. And it takes a team of people to provide all that help and support.

The Mental Health Court team includes victim’s advocates who have been through recovery themselves, a probation officer, case managers, an assistant county attorney, and Judge John Tackett.

"This is a court that just spoke to me," says Judge Tackett. “Also, I've got experience with folks with mental illness in my family."

On Monday before the court convenes, the team discusses each person appearing that day in front of the judge, examining where that person is in treatment, and their support group.

The mental health court team knows each person intimately. They use thirty community partners, like therapists and treatment facilities, to help the clients. Some of that help comes from out-of-state.

Program Coordinator Jennifer Van Ort-Hazzard says, "We've sent folks into treatment in different parts of the country, because there was a specialized program that really spoke to their needs, and they hadn't been successful in local community activities."

In the end, though, it’s up to the clients to make the changes.

Mental Health Court client Brandon Starr says, "I was facing homelessness, I was at my lowest, being active in addiction, and they gave me a chance."

The first time Starr tried the mental health court program, he couldn't make it work. In this court, however, you get more than one chance.

"I have been incarcerated, maybe four or five months, so I was determined to get out, and not only to prove to them but to prove to myself, that, ‘Hey, I can do this.’"

The second time worked for Starr. He landed a job at Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse and earned 'Employee of the Month.'

Judge Tackett is about to award Starr with reaching Phase 4 in the program. Clients start in Phase 1 and work their way up. Reaching phase four - that means you've graduated.

"Congrats, Phase 4, you're killing it," says Judge Tackett, to a round of applause

"I'm just thankful they didn't give up on me, says Starr. “So, I feel like I'm supposed to give back. You can't just have all that good, and not want to give it back, you know - help somebody else. I'm grateful. It's just a blessing."