Montana: Mobile crisis response team helping Missoula students find help
5 seated adults posing for a photo

“Youth court, school district and Providence Montana partner to help students, better prevent them from entering the juvenile justice system.”

The mobile crisis response unit in Missoula’s public schools represents a significant step towards re-imagining justice and addressing the root causes of issues that often lead students into the juvenile justice system, a constellation of factors known as the school to prison pipeline. Like other districts all across the country, Missoula schools saw an increase in students experiencing mental and behavioral health challenges when they resumed in-person instruction after pandemic-related restrictions. As a result, many youth were at risk of having an encounter with law enforcement for a range of reasons from behavioral health issues at school to school avoidance issues caused by mental health obstacles.

In this reporting from the Montana Free Press, Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Christine Kowalski admits, “There were kids in the system we didn’t know how to handle.” Lacking capacity to address mental health issues in the juvenile justice system, Missoula County Youth Court partnered with Providence Montana and worked with the school district to create an option that reflects a commitment to breaking away from punitive approaches. Instead of relying on carceral measures that may isolate young people and perpetuate the school to prison pipeline, the mobile crisis response unit focuses on providing community-based solutions for youth experiencing mental health challenges.

The mobile unit is able to fill a gap in service by providing school-based mental health services that the district doesn’t have resources for, decreasing the likelihood that law enforcement will be involved. In addition to prevention and de-escalation, they’re able to offer “postvention,” such as supporting students when they come back to school after behavioral-health-related hospitalization. The mobile crisis response unit serves as a critical tool in ensuring that students with psychiatric disabilities receive the time-sensitive support they need within an inclusive educational environment.

“The program doesn’t make students or their families jump through hoops, and the school-based contact is less daunting than the emergency room or youth court. It makes the mental health piece less scary for families,” says Kowalski

The program’s commitment to providing students with their first contact with therapeutic support is particularly significant for those with disabilities who may face barriers to accessing mental health care. By offering referrals to outpatient and inpatient mental health care, case management, medication provider appointments, and assistance with health insurance sign-up, the program addresses the gaps in mental health services that individuals with disabilities often encounter.

“That’s the whole point. They got services and didn’t have to have contact with youth court,” Kowalski said. “It shaves off the trauma of youth court and waiting for that process when we would just do the same referrals.”

For more details, full article here.