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Mental Health Court honors its first successful ‘graduate’


In late January, a 28-year-old man named Matt was among the first participants in the new Mental Health Court in Indian River County. Last week, after six months of programs and services, the attention and affection of trained professionals, and Matt’s own hard work, he was honored for successfully completing the program. 

And what a difference between the Matt who came to court in January and the Matt who tearfully listened to accolades last week.

In January, after being arrested for trespassing a few months earlier and making prank calls to police a few months before that, he was diverted to Mental Health Court because he had a history of mental health issues.

At the time, his speech was halting and robotic. When Judge Cynthia Cox, who was instrumental with Sheriff Deryl Loar in getting the court started in Indian River County, spoke to him in court during his first appearance, he merely repeated her words back with no spontaneity.

“Do not go anywhere near a public school,” Cox told him in January.

“I cannot go anywhere near a public school,” he had replied.

But by February, he was more relaxed. He already had a caseworker meeting with him and coordinating services.

“How ya‘ doin‘ Matt?” Cox asked him in late February.

“Good, thanks,” he said, smiling back at her in court.

By March, Matt, who had a history of problems connecting with people, sat outside the courtroom talking away to a Mental Health Court coordinator and deputy about what he liked about the sheriff’s picnic.

“I love to see the dogs go through their paces and they have a really delicious, huge plate of barbecue at the picnic for only $10,” he told them before going before the judge.

By then, Medicaid enrollment had gone through for him and his services and therapy had increased.  

“Be sure to stay out of trouble,” Cox told him.

“I will,” he said. 

In April, he was in therapy, taking meds and going regularly to the Drop-In Center provided by the Mental Health Association, where he did computer research, played pool and went to movies with a group of new friends. He was also doing community service.

“It’s going good,” he told Cox in court.

In May and June, he was considered by the dozen people who worked with him to be one of the stars of Mental Health Court, which by then had over 20 participants.

On July 2, Matt sat outside of court before his graduation ceremony and talked to his caseworkers about his progress: “This has been so good for me – especially the experience of talking to people and learning to relate to them,” he said.

“We’ve shared lots of hamburgers and had a good time,” his case coordinator told him.

In Cox’s courtroom, about a dozen people who had worked with Matt sat there smiling, as well as a dozen more people who had helped get the program started and Matt’s fellow participants in the program, as well as his parents.

Sheriff Deryl Loar spoke about Matt beginning in the program 26 weeks before with only a few people. But now, he said, the court had 36 defendants-turned-clients, but only one person who had successfully completed the program.

“He was a star in the program, and his progress and turn-around should encourage all of you,” said Loar.  And, as the sheriff continued to praise Matt, tears began rolling down Matt’s cheeks.

Matt, who, when he started in Mental Health Court, showed no emotion or ability to seize the moment and relish it, was fully engaged with the sweetness of what was happening.

“There probably wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” said Shirley Firenze, who had worked to get Matt services and stayed in close touch with him.

Next, Judge Cox spoke and told Matt (his last name is not used because of privacy rules) that he should be proud to be entering a new phase of his life. She called the work he had done “an excellent accomplishment” and compared him and his work at meeting the requirements of the program and building character to a carpenter charged with doing excellent work on every job.

“You cannot go back. You are the carpenter and every day you hammer a nail, place a board, erect a wall. Your attitude and the choices you make strengthen your foundation and the house you will live in tomorrow,” said the judge, who concluded by saying she wished him a successful life.

In a few months, more defendants-turned-clients will graduate from the program, as it continues to grow.