New Orange County program will target keeping people out of jail, into mental health services

Mental health director: ‘It’s necessary work, and we plan to get it done’

A multi-million dollar program is being developed to make accessing mental health care easier for residents of Orange County.

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – A multi-million dollar program is being developed to make accessing mental health care easier for residents of Orange County.

In February, a Heart of Florida United Way audit of mental health services exposed a $49.7 million gap between the services that were available to residents and the services that were needed.

One of the findings found the easiest place to access mental health services was the jail.

“I think mental health does not belong in the jail,” Dr. Gregorie Constant-Peter said.

As the assistant medical director of the Orange County Jail, she said she sees a lot of inmates with mental illness. She said the services her team provides are good, but she does not believe some inmates should have made it passed the booking process.

“That patient should be screened while they were in the lobby, while they were at mom and dad’s, or at the scene that they were at,” she said. “(They need) to be brought into a mental health facility, where they can get, you know, the proper care that they need.”

Family wants change

“My daughter has a mind of a 13-year-old, but her age is 44 years old,” Joseph Castro said. “My daughter is mentally challenged. She’s depressive, and she’s autistic.”

Castro’s daughter, Cecilia, was arrested at the group home she was living in on Easter Sunday.

Witnesses said she punched someone else living in the home during an argument.

Deputies transported her to the Polk County Jail in Bartow, and they charged her with battery.

A photo of Cecilia Delrio provided by her parents (Courtesy: Joseph & Cecilia Castro) (Copyright 2022 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

“I’m trying to get her out of this position and put her in the right position, so she can get the treatment and care that she needs – not to be here in jail,” Castro said.

A spokesperson for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office told News 6 their agency does utilize a mental health professional for calls asking for assistance. Deputies are also trained in crisis intervention training.

They said deputies in this case responded to a report of a crime being committed.

Castro’s daughter was held in jail for more than 30 days.

On June 1, Polk County prosecutors decided not to pursue criminal charges.

Working on a solution

As a result of the United Way mental health audit, a panel is now being formed to implement new programs designed to expand mental health services in Orange County.

The five areas they will focus on include: improving mental and behavioral health care delivery, promoting mental health awareness, addressing the needs of affordable housing for homeless and indigent people, establishing a qualified and available workforce, and connecting ways to pay for mental and behavioral health services.

Part of the first area – mental and behavioral health care delivery – will address expanding services.

Some of them will address diverting people from a potential stay in jail to mental health treatment.

The proposal calls for:

  • Increased crisis intervention training for law enforcement to identify when mental health may be an issue when responding to a call
  • Drop-in centers with mental health and substance abuse assistance
  • Substance abuse and mental health residential services
  • Increased case care and case management
  • Computer technology to connect health care providers, in order to track how patients are faring, and more.

According to the proposal, the cost to implement this segment alone stands at a minimum of $12.7 million.

“There’s like half of this being spent on early childhood,” said Donna Wyche, the director of the Orange County Mental Health and Homeless Division. “We have got to get to those kids and families early, so they can learn to live with this disease and be great members of our society.”

Wyche said developing an action plan for the proposals will take about one year.

“It’s a lot of work but it’s necessary work, and we plan to get it done,” she said.

The group tasked with implementing the programs have a deadline of summer 2023 with updates planned throughout the year.

About the Author:

Erik Sandoval joined the News 6 team as a reporter in May 2013 and became an Investigator in 2020. During his time at News 6, Erik has covered several major stories, including the 2016 Presidential campaign. He was also one of the first reporters live on the air at the Pulse Nightclub shooting.