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Lawrenceville initiated Gwinnett’s first mental health co-responder program

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Officer Jacob Baird, the Community Engagement Officer in charge of the program, was on his way to a call in July when he said he passed a car that was sitting in the middle of an intersection, blocking traffic. Soon after, the man got out of the car and started walking in traffic.

“He has no awareness of what’s going on around him,” Baird said.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

As Baird approached and called for backup, the man scooted away and started performing karate in the street. What Baird originally thought was a stranded motorist turned out to be something more.

“It ended up being somebody who’s under the influence of drugs, has a mental health diagnosis, was a missing person,” Baird said.

Before the program, the motorist could have landed in jail. In this case, he received mental health treatment and avoided being locked up.

“Once mental health professionals from Project FIRST were able to assess and direct individuals toward the services needed, crisis-related calls reduced, and in many cases, they stopped completely,” Baird said.

Kayleigh Abbott, 20, struggles with mental health and other diagnosed disorders has run away from home on multiple occasions. The various disorders that caused Abbott to want to run away has led to hospital stays and even jail time.

“She was in there for almost 30 days and I had to fight to get her out,” Abbott’s mom, Christina Henry said.

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Abbott has been diagnosed with over nine disorders, including a genetic disorder, a mitochondrial disorder and level three autism. These diagnoses cause her to be combative and aggressive toward officers, Henry said.

Abbott’s frequent fleeing led to difficult circumstances — she’s been incarcerated, homeless and sex trafficked, Henry said.

“We spent two weeks in the hospital at CHOA (Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta) trying to get her body back to life,” Henry said. “It’s a parent’s worst nightmare.”

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Abbott ran away at least three times before Officer Baird and the department’s co-responder team helped during an incident. Before the co-responder team stepped in, Abbott ran away and landed in the Gwinnett County jail for nearly a month, Henry said.

Other agencies in Gwinnett, such as the Gwinnett County Police Department, have used Lawrenceville’s co-responder program as a model for their own mental health services, Baird said.

“We have every agency trying to do something like that, which is pretty cool,” Baird said.

To start, the program had two behavioral health clinicians from View Point Health. The clinician’s job is to listen to the radio and monitor for any mental health calls occur. If so, the clinicians could self-dispatch themselves, but most of the time they are requested by officer’s on stage.

When on scene, clinicians help by talking with an individual to help ease the situation. Officer Baird said it’s the officer’s job is to protect everyone on stage.

The Gwinnett County Police Department mental health team has been out on hundreds of calls, including one in March when a officers and SWAT were called to a Greyhound bus incident on I-85. After arriving on scene, officers and SWAT team members felt the suspect, Jaylin Backman, 23, was having a mental health crisis when he pulled out a gun while arguing with a fellow passenger.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Officers called for the behavioral health unit to step in. After hours of negotiations, Backman was taken into custody, and given a mental health evaluation.

As the program has evolved, the team is now made up of one clinician and one peer coordinator, someone who has dealt with mental health or substance abuse and worked through it. Officer Baird hopes to add case managers to the team, who would work alongside the peer coordinator to help those in crisis get the help they need.

Since Abbott has been working with Baird, she has been going to various therapies to help with her disorders.

“I can’t imagine how many Kayleigh’s are sitting in jail right now,” Henry said.

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