Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Graduation

Late last month, I attended a very special graduation - the first from our municipal court's mental health docket program.

My day job, when I am not hauling plants or percussion instruments, is working on special projects for the Delaware Municipal Court. One of the very special projects that I have been involved in since starting there four years ago was the creation and establishment of the mental health docket.

A mental health docket is what is known as a "specialized docket." Specialized dockets are court programs designed to target a particular population in the criminal justice system and offer alternatives to incarceration and further criminal sanctions. Our docket takes individuals who have a serious mental illness and have been charged with a non-violent misdemeanor and provides them with direction, supervision, and links to other services, including (and especially) regular mental health counseling and treatment. If the individual completes all phases of the program successfully, the original charges are dismissed.

What the mental health docket is, in real terms, is a chance for a participant to get treatment and other services to help them better manage their illness and break a cycle of repeated offenses.

Tiffany came into the docket two years ago, withdrawn, anxious. For the first several weeks, she would sit in court hunched over, not looking at anyone. She always wore a small knit cap pulled all the way down to her eyebrows, with her hair tucked underneath.

Time went by. I do not administer the mental health docket, so I am not in that court regularly. After several months, I dropped in to watch a docket session, noticing all the new faces. I didn't recognize the young woman with the flowing hair until the judge called out, "Tiffany."

I gawked. Gone was the knit cap, the hunched over look. She still anxiously twisted her hands, but she stood up straight and addressed the court.

Shortly before her graduation, Tiffany came to the courthouse to go over details with the docket coordinator. I was assisting at the check-in table that day. I did not recognize her at all until she gave her name. She was older, quieter, more mature looking and acting. Since she started the docket, she has had one child and another is on the way. Her boyfriend, soon to be her husband, was with her this day.

She looked like any other young woman juggling life's responsibilities.

As I walked her back to the coordinator's office, she commented on the weather. The Tiffany I first saw two years earlier would not have looked at me, let alone said anything. The Tiffany of today bravely carried out small talk with only a giggle or two to show her anxiety.

At her graduation a week later, Tiffany stood up proud and happy, her giggles intermixed with her tears. The press release I wrote about that day is at the end of this post.

People with mental illnesses often live on the fringes of society, unable to bridge the gap between their lives and the wider world. Anxiety and suspicion are on both sides and the barriers to fuller participation are very real. One of the hopes and goals of our mental health docket is that the participants gain the tools - of all kinds - to come in from the fringes.

At graduation, you could see that promise in Tiffany's face.


No cap and gown. No "Pomp and Circumstance." No commencement speaker, unless you counted the judge on the bench.

Yet the graduation ceremony that took place in Courtroom A of the Delaware Municipal Court Wednesday afternoon was every bit as meaningful and joyous as the ones that will take place at colleges and high schools later this spring.

On Wednesday, April 21, Tiffany *** became the first graduate of the court's mental health docket after entering it 24 months earlier. Municipal Court Judge David Sunderman, who established the specialized program, spoke of her accomplishments at graduation.

"This is a happy and tremendous day for all of us, but especially for Tiffany. She has consistently followed her treatment plan and exhibited a desire to improve her life. We hope that this experience will enable her to continue to grow as a person and continue to be a valuable member of our community."

The Delaware Municipal Court established its mental health docket in December 2007. The docket, which Sunderman characterizes as a "problem-solving court program," was created to offer certain mentally ill offenders charged with misdemeanors a program of intense supervision and treatment rather than jail or further criminal sanctions. Judge W. Duncan Whitney operates a similar program at the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas and the two courts share key personnel. Funding for those shared positions is provided in part by grants and in part by the Delaware-Morrow Mental Health & Recovery Services Board.

Mental Health Docket Coordinator Ed Klages, who has been with the program since December 2008, reflected on the success of the program, which currently has 35 participants, 20 of whom are in the municipal court docket.

"The docket is a win-win situation for both the participants and the community," Klages said. "Delaware County is fortunate to have people in the judicial system and social agencies who understand the importance of this kind of collaborative initiative, and are committed to its success."

In the end, the courtroom graduation ceremony felt like any other graduation one has ever attended. There were congratulations from staff and friends. There were flowers and some tears. And there was the optimism on the face and in the words of the new graduate.

"Being in the docket helped me to grow up. I learned to start trusting people. Thank you, everybody, for helping me."


Sharon said...

This is an awesome program. It must have been rewarding to see the change in this young lady.

Jackie said...

This is so inspiring! I agree with Sharon that this sounds like a great program. I love to hear stories like this...we're so bombarded with all the negative.

Thanks for the smile today.

Ingrid @ Morestylethancash said...

This is an amazing program and should be copied everywhere. I am curious, however, that you used this woman's full name in your article.

Mental Health issues still hold a huge stigma in our society and as she is now a mother I would hate in years time for some mean spirited person to tell her children that they read on the internet that their mother was "crazy". It would be even worse if her own children were stigmatized at school by their peers.

I think that we all know now that what is printed on the internet can follow a person around for years and even though she successfully completed this program she does deserve some privacy.

Just my thoughts.

April said...


When Tiffany graduated, she consented to her full name being used in the newspaper, because she wanted others to know that the docket can make real changes in someone's life. The press release ran as written a few days after graduation.

You make a good point, though. Good enough that as soon as I post my note, I am going to edit the release slightly to remove her whole name.

Thank you!