by Moryt Milo
It’s 6 P.M. on the first Wednesday of the month and families and friends sign on to Zoom in the age of COVID. Fear and desperation can be seen on their faces. They need help. Their child or other family member is in jail.
Kathy B. and Carol, the facilitators of the group, feel their fright. They understand it intimately. Both their sons have been in jail and gone through the court system. Both their sons have underlying mental health issues that led to their arrests. And at the time neither Kathy nor Carol knew how to navigate the criminal justice system to help their child. They scrambled, persisted, and figured it out. Their experience birthed the NAMI-SCC Family Jail Support Group.
Prior to 2017, frantic calls to the NAMI Warm Line steered families to support group meetings. But there were no specific tools targeted for families with loved ones in jail. That has changed.
Sarah Prabhu, NAMI-SCC Warm Line Help Desk Manager, said, “So many families call coming from a place of confusion. They are going through a traumatic experience, and we can introduce them to Kathy B. and Carol for the support they need.”
The women reach out to families with a wealth of information that includes direct contacts at the jail, paperwork to advocate for their family member, and to comfort.
“Our first goal is to support and help them navigate the complex system,” Carol said.
The women want family members to know they can be part of the solution. “We are not completely powerless in what we can do,” Kathy B. said.
This is key because just like HIPAA, which requires consent from the ill individual to enable family involvement, being jailed has its own privacy snags.
Understanding the Process
The first action is for families to complete Form AB 1424, which identifies the family member as having a mental illness, substance use disorder, or dual diagnosis. Kathy B. and Carol can provide these forms. This one-way form—without consent of the jailed family member—can impact how a person’s arrest is handled, diverting it from the criminal court to the behavioral health or drug court. The family member has the power to help from the outside, even if the jailed individual refuses to sign a consent form allowing a two-way conversation about the individual’s health history.
When Kathy B.’s son was in jail, she advocated to have her son diverted to Judge (Stephen) Manley’s Behavioral Health Court. She emphasized to the court that her son needed a supervised supportive housing program that included a psychiatrist, case worker, and medicine management. “I knew he would fail if he was left alone,” Kathy said.
Ultimately, her persistence paid off. Her son complied with a court-ordered program in a facility outside of the jail, appearing in court once a month for eighteen months. He achieved stability, which led to his criminal record being expunged. After he completed his obligation in the court-ordered program, he was referred to a Full Service Partnership (FSP) program with Momentum for Health. This wraparound program provides a case manager, psychiatrist, and therapist.
“I have the court to thank for that as well,” Kathy B. said.
Form AB 1424 provides medical history and contact information. After the family completes the form, they send it to Olivia Fojas, a licensed clinical social worker and senior-level manager at Custody Health Services in the Santa Clara County Main Jail. Olivia has several roles. For those arrested, she functions as a department liaison between family members and advocacy groups like NAMI.
“I have frequent contact with family members. I understand the complexities of the system and can only imagine how hard it is for families,” Fojas said. “I want to help reduce the anxiety, fear, and panic.”
Once Olivia receives the completed form, the individual can be better assessed and treated. This information helps the attorneys and public defenders evaluate their client’s needs. Olivia also attends the Family Jail Support Group meeting to answer questions. NAMI’s direct relationship with the jail has become an invaluable asset.
Kathy B. and Carol also provide another critical tool, the Jail/Court Contact Sheet, which lays out the entire process from crisis intervention to court hearings to county assistance for family members and consumers. This roadmap navigates the jail/court bureaucracy and is filled with contacts, emails, and phone numbers.
Access to these tools has become more critical than ever, especially during the pandemic. Over the past year, the pandemic heightened the confusion, worry, and uncertainty of what is happening to jailed family members. Pressing questions such as are they permitted to attend virtual court hearings, when are the court hearings, and searching for hearing outcomes, are often unknown. Kathy B. and Carol help families find these answers by navigating them to the right departments and people.
Beyond the Jail
In addition to quantifiable tools, the Family Jail Support Group gives families a place “to tell their stories. A place where you can go and not be judged. Where you have people who understand what you are going through. This is so powerful and healing,” Carol said.
The women listen to stories of frantic mothers trying to get their sons off the streets, out of the revolving-door cycle of brief hospitalization, discharge, homelessness, jail because they’re untreated. Families talk about their sons and daughters who, once stable, find a job and an apartment, until lack of care results in a psychotic episode that lands them in jail, and all they worked so hard to gain is lost.
One woman said, “I don’t know how far his rock bottom needs to be before his life changes. He has no place to live. It’s not safe for us to have him at home. He is back in jail and I am trying to get him into Judge Manley’s court.” The stories are heart wrenching and all the families in the support group can empathize. They too feel the pain.
“We want to help families with the guilt they feel when their child ends up in jail,” Kathy B. added. “It’s not their fault.”
When the initial Family Jail Support Group was first announced back in 2017, Carol didn’t think anyone would come. “I was so surprised to see people show up,” she said. Demand was great, and since then the support group has grown into an incredible resource for families in dire need of assistance.
The families become stronger, and “We see them celebrate those small, little things, as they move forward,” Carol said.
Kathy B. agreed, and when asked what motivated her to help co-found the group, she said, “I wanted to pay it forward and help families not go it alone.”