Q&A with Utah’s Assistant State Courts Administrator Richard Schwermer

SchwermerThe Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center talked to Richard Schwermer, Utah’s assistant state courts administrator, about mental health courts in his state and his use of Developing a Mental Health Court: An Interdisciplinary Curriculum, the CSG Justice Center’s free online multimedia curriculum for people and teams seeking to start, maintain, or learn about mental health courts.

A court administrator since 1990, Schwermer assesses, certifies, and provides trainings on best practices to Utah’s mental health and other problem-solving courts.

CSGJC: What are some common difficulties the behavioral health and criminal justice systems face in your state?

Richard Schwermer: On the front end, one of the things I often see is a real lack of actual, consistent mental health diagnoses. Folks use “clinical impressions” instead of good clinical assessments with validated tools that give you a diagnosis that you can rely on.

Then, on the back end, treatment availability is an issue. In my state we’ve just begun requiring that all behavioral health providers—and the behavioral health programs themselves—be certified. We’ve always had licensure requirements, but the programs haven’t been certified in the past, so there have been a lot of non-evidence-based approaches to treatment. Hopefully we’re getting a handle on that now but, of course, that certification requirement also makes it so that there are less qualified programs available to send participants to.

CSGJC: What was the draw for you to add Developing a Mental Health Court to your trainings? How has it been helpful?

RS: It’s basically the only game in town as far as I’m concerned. It’s by far the best multimedia, interactive product and it’s 90 percent of what we use to conduct our trainings.

I give everybody homework before I begin the actual training process; I have the behavioral health folks look at the Introduction to Criminal Justice video and the criminal justice folks look at the Introduction to Behavioral Health video, and those are helpful in giving them the lay of the land. Those videos are a good first touch and a jumping off point for the rest of the curriculum.

I’ve also found each module’s Activities Guide really engaging and useful in terms of generating discussion and eliciting participation from all the team members. It walks you through a mock staffing that lets you to talk about each role on the team. And those four-minute vignettes can really be stretched out. I usually begin the video and then find places to stop and discuss and answer questions from the team along the way.

CSGJC: What other tools do you use in your trainings besides the curriculum?

RS: Before any court can get started in Utah, they have to be approved and go through our certification process. Our certification standards draw largely from the Adult Drug Court Best Practice Standards, which we broke down into 110 discrete, measurable elements. Then we went through and figured out which of those elements we thought, based on research, applied to a variety of problem-solving courts. For mental health courts, we came up with 60 or 70 different elements that we think apply directly, which we then turned into a checklist that we use for certification. We found that a lot of things that are considered best practices for drug courts end up being equally applicable for mental health courts—things like objective eligibility determinations, the use of validated assessments for risk and needs, and electronic communication by the team. So that checklist is also something that we refer to and use as a teaching tool as we go through the curriculum.

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Developing a Mental Health Court: An Interdisciplinary Curriculum includes two introductory lessons and eight instructional modules covering a wide range of topics critical to starting and operating a mental health court. Content includes key principles in behavioral health and criminal justice, including material on diagnoses and treatment modalities, assessment for behavioral health and criminogenic needs, and defendants’ legal rights, as well as descriptions of the various practitioners in the mental health, substance abuse, and criminal justice systems. The curriculum also introduces considerations for convening the right stakeholders, determining whether to start a mental health court, selecting a “target population” for the program, setting program policies, developing and monitoring treatment plans and supervision conditions, and sustaining a mental health court, including data collection and evaluation.