BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Three years ago, Kelli Santler couldn’t talk, didn’t know how to dress herself and wouldn’t make eye contact.

She was facing probation violations for a misdemeanor assault conviction and possible jail time. When a judge or lawyer would speak to her, she would nod her head, not because she understood, but because she knew that’s what she was supposed to do, said public defense attorney Darrin Hall.

In 2013, Santler’s hearing was one of two that prompted Hall, Judge Matthew Elich and prosecuting attorney Warren Page to start Whatcom County District Court’s mental health court program, which came into fruition January 2015.

On Feb. 3, 2015, Santler, 33, entered into the program and began her three-year journey to graduation. Santler previously had a myriad of mental health diagnoses, including a psychotic disorder not otherwise specified, bipolar disorder, severe depression and anti-social personality disorder, Hall said.

Between 2011 and Feb. 3, 2015, Santler had spent 152 days in jail. In 2016 — after she started the program — she spent only 6 1/2 days in jail and none in 2017.

On Jan. 10, Santler became one of four people to graduate from the mental health court program. Her charges were dismissed, she was thrown a party with cookies and was given a copy of Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”

Hall, Elich and others sang her praises at her graduation, noting Santler’s hard work throughout her journey.

“The person that started this program was very introverted and clearly affected by mental health issues. Today, it’s not like we’ve cured everything, but it’s a vast improvement in her ability to work within normal society and have a normal conversation with somebody and make eye contact,” said Michael Sullivan, Santler’s case manager with Lake Whatcom Residential and Treatment Center. “She has some faith in herself and developed an identity. That’s been really fun to watch and help her with.”

Santler, who has been called a motivating factor for the remaining 10 participants in the program, said she plans to get a full-time job, hopefully in home caregiving. She said she also plans to go back to school for business health.

Santler said she’s learned a lot through the program and has been grateful for all the support she’s received. She said she told the others to keep going with the program and to be themselves, and they too could get to graduation day.

“I saw it in myself,” Santler said. “I’m just really thankful for all the support I got and I’m proud to be here, where I am today.”

THE PROGRAM

The mental health court program was designed as a jail alternative for those whose crimes have a clear link to serious mental health issues. The program focuses on understanding and coping with mental illnesses, altering behaviors, and stability, treatment and recovery.

Of the 20 participants who have come through the program, four have graduated and 10 are still participating. The others either failed the program, went through the program but didn’t graduate, or stopped participating.

Bellingham Municipal Court also has a mental health court program for those facing misdemeanors.

Not every offender is eligible for mental health court, officials said. Offenders with sexual assault or excessively violent history, previous murder convictions or DUIs (which are routed through drug court) are ineligible. Many of the participants in the program are facing assault or domestic violence charges that were dropped from felonies to misdemeanors, as a way to better supervise them, and provide an opportunity to participate in the program.

To become a participant, an offender must fill out a form and speak with attorneys. If it’s deemed that person may be a good fit, the applicant will undergo a mental health screening, and then, depending on results, be accepted into the program, according to officials.

There are five phases to the program. Those include getting participants connected to services, such as transportation, housing and appointments, and focusing on healthy habits, such as taking medication regularly and staying clean.

As the phases progress, participants will focus on changing their social interaction and finding beneficial community activities like volunteering, participating in moral therapy and learning about the symptoms, coping mechanisms and treatment for their mental illnesses. They will also prepare for life after graduation.

Linda Grant, the mental health court program manager, said the program is funded by the Whatcom County Health Department through a local sales tax, as well as by many partner agencies, such as the Whatcom County court system which pays for the attorneys to be present, judicial time and probation officers’ time. Grant said the local sales tax fills in the gaps for what isn’t covered by partner agencies.

‘A WALL OF GREATNESS’

The first thing you see when you walk into Rebecca Rossmeisl’s one-bedroom apartment is what she refers to as her “wall of greatness.”

Tacked in the hallway are her paper completion certificates for all five phases of the mental health court program, including her graduation certificate, which has its own wooden frame. Drawings from her two children hang beside the certificates.

Rossmeisl, 32, was the first participant to graduate from the mental health court program in March 2017.

“The program gave me a sense of direction and gave me the support I needed. I’m thankful I got a second chance. The program helped me know where to start,” Rossmeisl said. “It helped me to get back to being a functioning member of society. … Without that, I don’t think I would have made it this far.”

After her graduation, Rossmeisl regained custody of her two children, Angel, 13, and Chloe, 3. She said being a mother of two can be hard, but she tries to lead by example. She said couldn’t imagine not waking up with them beside her now.

Rossmeisl currently attends Whatcom Community College, where she’s in a high school completion program and is studying math and English. She said she expects to be finished this quarter, and would eventually like to get into massage therapy.

Rossmeisl said she had to hit rock bottom in order to be where she is today. Her first year after graduation was an adjustment, but if she ever had a hard day she reached out to her case manager or others in the mental health court program.

“That program, it was like a lifeline. It gave me back the life I wanted and I could just taste it but didn’t know how to get it. And now that I’m here, every day is almost like a dream,” Rossmeisl said. “I wake up, I have my girls, we have food and a roof over our heads and they’re going to school. It’s just amazing to be here today and to be able to be here with my girls today.”

She keeps a calendar and a strict routine, which helps her stay focused and on track. She said she set the bar high as the first graduate but believes anybody can graduate and do well if they want it bad enough.

“The greatest piece of advice I ever got was don’t give up before the miracle happens,” Rossmeisl said. “I think they should continue that program, because I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to turn it around.”


Information from: The Bellingham Herald, http://www.bellinghamherald.com