Rare pilot mental health program in Okaloosa County celebrates first successful year

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH — The men and women who have taken up residence at the Jack Burkett Administration Building aren't exactly there by choice, and they certainly didn't decide who they would be spending time with upon their arrival.

But each of them has been placed in a pilot Bridgeway Center mental health program at the Shell Avenue location because they've shown promise. Something about them has convinced those who could put them behind bars that with some time and effort they might get their lives on track.

Their proximity, circumstances and similar roads to recovery bond them.

"We're kind of a thrown-together family," said Everett Johnson, who is within days of completing the 90-day program and becoming its 18th graduate.

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It was just over a year ago in January 2020 that a ribbon was cut and the Jack Burkett Administration Building began accepting clients into what is commonly called a diversion program, but at this early stage it's more correctly labeled a condition of bond program.

"You agree to go through the program, but you still have to make court appearances, and if you complete the program consideration is given, but you could still have to go to jail," said Larry McFarland, the clinical officer at Bridgeway Center. "Graduation from the program has been viewed favorably by the court."

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The goal is to pull certain offenders who have shown signs of suffering from mental illness, possibly coupled with substance abuse, out of the judicial system and place them in a setting where they can receive assistance and treatment.

Larry McFarland, clinical officer for Bridgeway Center, describes the center's mental health pre-trial program. The 90-day program seeks to reduce criminal incarcerations and mental health hospitalizations.

Once accepted into the program, an individual is provided safe shelter, which in some cases is a luxury unto itself. Outpatient substance abuse treatment is provided alongside psychosocial care such as learning to cope with anxiety.

In a first year tainted by COVID-19, Bridgeway Center has welcomed 35 clients and graduated more than half. McFarland called it "a very high success rate."

"We've only had four re-incarcerated, and that was primarily for substance abuse," he said. 

Okaloosa County officials have been pleased with what they've seen so far. 

"They got it off to a good start," said Craig Coffey, deputy county administrator.  "They're changing lives one person at a time. This program helps fill a need. These people have previously had no place to turn."

Forensic counselor Jessica Taylor leads a group session on mental health and life skills with some of the clients of Bridgeway Center's mental health pre-trial program.

The Jack Burkett Administration Building was constructed to house 15 clients, and recently 11 were pushing through the program. All those who were willing to speak to the Northwest Florida Daily News had nothing but praise for the program and its administrators.

"I've been through a couple of programs. This one has actually made a difference," said Haily Burnette, who was spending just her second week at Bridgeway Center. "In this county, this was a godsend. A lot of people get in trouble, and now they have a place where they can finally get honest to God help." 

Okaloosa's mental health initiative is a pilot program, one of just three in the state. It was secured through the work of then-state Rep. Mel Ponder, who in his first year in office was able to get approval to establish the program but no funding to get it off the ground. 

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Florida legislators appropriated $250,000 as seed money for the initiative two years ago, in Ponder's third year in office, and laid out another $350,000 last year.

Newly elected state Rep. Patt Maney, a longtime advocate for mental health care, has requested an additional $350,000 be put in the program this year, but said he realizes that there will be stiff competition for fewer state dollars in an economy weakened by COVID-19.

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The County Commission has budgeted $150,000 toward the project, which Maney said could enhance the prospect of state consideration.

"The speaker and leadership want to see local skin in the game in most projects like this," he said. "This project does have significant county money in it. We've got a record of people who have graduated, and as word is getting out in the community, family members are calling and asking 'How do I get my loved one in?' " 

To make the program work locally requires cooperation from several entities. Candidates for admission are screened by the county's pre-trial coordinator in conjunction with the State Attorney's Office and Public Defender's Office. The county, the state Department of Children and Families and, of course, Bridgeway, all play a role. 

Forensic counselor Jessica Taylor leads a group session on mental health and life skills at the Jack Burkett Administration Building on Shell Avenue in Fort Walton Beach.

Bonnie Barlow, the CEO of Bridgeway Center, said in her 36 years at Bridgeway she has seldom seen a collaborative effort work as successfully as this one.

"This is one of the rare programs where everybody has been able to come together and create a very effective program," Barlow said. "You don't see it too often; all of the entities have had such good collaboration."

Clients in Bridgeway Center's mental health pre-trial program have decorated their room doors at the Jack Burkett Administration Building.  The 90-day program seeks to reduce criminal incarcerations and mental health hospitalizations by providing an in-patient, community-based behavioral health regimen.

What is most rewarding for those working within the program, Barlow said, is seeing the impact the program is having on Bridgeway's clients and their families.

"You see a change when they come into the program. They get on their proper medications, they start attending behavior modification classes," she said. "You see the impact for them and their whole family. We have seen parents weep to see their children's lives changed."

Kerry Custer (left) offers some suggestions on coping mechanisms as he and other clients in Bridgeway Center's mental health pre-trial program participate in a daily life skills class.

Although there would be legal ramifications for leaving the program, nothing at the Jack Burkett Administrative Building physically keeps those enrolled from walking out. Johnson said he has stayed the course because he is determined to give himself and his family a better life.

"You connect with yourself, make yourself a better person for you and your family," he said. "My daughter comes to visit all the time, and that's why I agreed to get in the program."