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Giving life back: Forsyth County CARE Court is an alternative to jail for felons with mental illness
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Attorney Andrew Richman said unlike other parts of the legal system, all parts of CARE Court are working with the participants’ best intentions in mind, particularly having a judge invested in their outcome. - photo by Micah Green

In the past, when a person suffering mental illness was arrested in Forsyth County there was little the courts could do except throw them in jail, but a local court is working to provide a better solution for those who need one.

The Superior Court of Forsyth County’s Mental Health Change, Assist, Restore and Enlighten, or CARE, Court was launched in 2014 as a way to deal with those in the court system who have severe and persistent mental illnesses.

“People who are charged with felonies, we do have a few that are charged with misdemeanors, they come into our program for supervision, so that as a judge I can help them find out what caused them to violate the law and what is going on with their mental health, with their overall health and what needs to change to make them become a productive member of society,” said Judge Leslie Abernathy-Maddox, who presides over the court.

On May 11, the court will graduate two more participants. The court’s first class graduated in May 2016, and next week’s graduation will bring the total to 14.

As the program goes through the court system, participants plead, are sentenced to or have a sentence withheld until the two-year program is completed.

Once in the program, participants are supervised by the court, sometimes at a treatment facility if they do not have accommodations, and report to the court weekly.

“They’re in community support meetings such as AA or NA,” Abernathy-Maddox said. “They have weekly individual therapy. They see a psychiatrist on a regular basis. They’re required to take their psychiatric medications exactly as they are prescribed. They cannot possess, use, consume alcohol or drugs or have any types of weapons.”

The court also helps participants deal with medical needs, which can compound mental issues.

A special track for veterans in the program is also being discussed for a potential addition to the program.

Abernathy-Maddox said the program gives participants rules and structures and knowing that they have a judge holding them accountable for their actions leads to fewer issues.

“For some people in our program, they’ve never had anyone care if they succeed,” she said. “One of our first participants, he was probably the fourth person we took into our program, until he had his first birthday in our program, he never had a birthday card. He’d been in prison more than half of his life and he’d never had a birthday card.”

At the beginning of the program, Abernathy-Maddox said, participants will rarely make eye contact and will be reserved.

After a few meetings, that begins to change.

“It’s just amazing to see the stages of progress,” she said. “About three months in, you begin to see that they hold their heads up and make a little bit of eye contact. By the time that are finished with the program, they can sit up at the table, they are relaxed, their shoulders are back, they are making eye contact the whole time.”

Attorney Andrew Richman said unlike other parts of the legal system, all parts of CARE Court are working with the participants’ best intentions in mind, particularly having a judge invested in their outcome.

“If you come to watch these court proceedings, it’s pretty fascinating because you have, in an adversarial system, everybody working together,” Richman said. “It’s for the good of the person in CARE Court, so when you have a judge that is involved in it and actually cares about this particular person out of all people, every time the person comes up, each person needs a different kind of caring.”

For Abernathy-Maddox, the change is so big it is a literal life-saver.

“It’s hard to truly, accurately express it in words, but they have their lives back,” she said. “It’s nothing short of having their real life back – they are sober. They are treating their mental illness so they can live their life at the highest functioning level. In terms of most of the time, they’re able to have a job, so they’re able to support themselves.”