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COMCARE staffing crisis may keep county from funding 24/7 mental health response team

Wichita Eagle - 6/11/2022

Jun. 11—In response to 17-year-old Cedric "CJ" Lofton's death in Sedgwick County lockup last September, the county commission considered paying for upgrades and additions to 911 and the youth corrections system at a budget work session Friday.

Funding is already in place for a calming room and camera upgrades at the juvenile intake center. But next year's county budget likely won't include funding for a 24-hour mobile mental health response system or embedding a mental health professional in the 911 call center.

Commissioners examined recommendations made by the juvenile justice task force, which was charged with addressing systemic failures that contributed to Lofton's death.

"The next step is really, you guys are going to have to hold us accountable," Commissioner Sarah Lopez told the task force in April. "We told you that we wanted you to give us these recommendations. We meant that, and now it's time that we do our part in this and try to implement these as best we can moving forward."

Commissioners will meet with County Manager Tom Stolz individually next week before he finalizes the proposed budget, which will come before the commission on July 13.

County staff determined it would cost $745,536 next year to fund a 24-hour mobile mental health response system, including increasing the number of full-time employees on COMCARE's mobile crisis unit from four to 12.

"It's a cost-effective way to ensure that we have 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week coverage with mental health clinicians who can get out to people in the field as is necessary," Assistant County Manager Rusty Leeds told commissioners.

But COMCARE, the city's mental health crisis center, is already facing a 200-employee staffing shortage.

"I do not see this going in our budget for this year because we can't even staff 200 positions," Chairman David Dennis said. "Adding eight more doesn't make sense to just put on our books, because it can't happen."

Lopez also said it didn't make sense to include funding for new COMCARE positions when there are already so many vacancies.

"It just reiterates why compensation has to be our number-one priority going into this budget because we have to keep our staff and get new ones as well," she said.

"If you only have so many positions to fill, these might be a priority over the other positions," Commissioner Jim Howell said of the proposed mobile crisis team members.

"This is a way to get mobile mental health out there in the field where it needs to be, using EMS as needed and using law enforcement as needed."

Another recommendation calls for the county to embed qualified mental health providers within the county's 911 system. According to county staff, hiring one bachelor's-level clinician would cost $77,264 a year.

That funding is not currently included in the proposed budget, although Leeds said the county is analyzing how many and what level of clinician would work best within the 911 system.

"The cost is going to depend on the level of service we want in this community. If we want 24-hour service, then you're talking about four to five clinicians," Leeds said.

"The purpose is to help those call center call-takers when they get somebody on the line who's in mental health crisis or has a family member there that's in crisis, they get on the line, they triage."

Lofton's foster father initially called 911 asking for a police escort to take the teen in for a mental health evaluation. After Lofton refused to go voluntarily and resisted being taken into protective custody, a Wichita police supervisor made the decision to take him to lockup, where he was fatally restrained by county corrections workers.

Leeds said the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections applied for and received grant funding from the state to provide core mental health services that serve the Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center (JIAC), fulfilling one of the task force recommendations.

A new contract, already accounted for in the budget, provides for nursing staff to be on call at all times for JIAC and the adjoining Juvenile Detention Facility, fulfilling another recommendation.

$299,517 in next year's budget will go toward purchasing and installing new cameras to address blind spots in the JIAC facility, as well as equipping cameras with audio capabilities.

JIAC security footage of the fatal restraint that led to Lofton's death shows the teen was held face-down for almost 45 minutes as corrections staff struggled to handcuff him on Sept. 24. He lost consciousness and died two days later.

The task force previously penned a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice requesting an investigation into whether law enforcement or corrections officers violated Lofton's civil rights during his arrest and detention. The DOJ confirmed that it conducted a review of Lofton's death but would not confirm if an investigation had been opened.

The task force's list of 57 recommendations also addressed the Wichita Police Department and the state foster care system.


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