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Jolene Cullen helps Behavioral Health Court participants connect to resources, meet goals

Tuesday, May 31, 2022 - 9:42am

For 23 years, Jolene Cullen has worked in criminal justice. She has provided service in child abuse investigations, foster care placement, corrections, and house arrest programs. She currently serves as the Adult Services Officer in the Douglas County Behavioral Health Court program.

On May 19, she witnessed Amanda Klopfenstein and Joshua Walters graduate from the program and get their criminal charges dismissed. That’s what she loves most about her job.

“I get to see people succeed,” she said. “I get to see that transition from when they start the program to when they leave. They often are so thankful and ready to go on to that next chapter in their life. It’s rewarding to be a part of their journey.”

Both of the graduates expressed their gratitude during a brief graduation ceremony in the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center. Walters specifically thanked several of the Behavioral Health Court team members, including Cullen. “She helped keep me on the straight and narrow,” he said with a smile. 

The Behavioral Health Court program connects defendants who have a serious mental illness to community support services – including social workers, case managers and peer support - with the goal of reducing their return to custody. Since the program was launched in 2017, 46 people have graduated from the program.

Cullen is responsible for reporting client compliance to the Behavioral Health Court team, which includes District Court Judge Sally Pokorny, who presides over the specialty court, in addition to staff from the District Attorney’s Office, DCCCA and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. Cullen must help clients identify behavior which may result in positive or negative consequences, and she reports any changes to the Behavioral Health Court team.

Additionally, Cullen helps guide participants by meeting with them on a regular basis and facilitating referrals to community resources when necessary.

“In this program, people have a chance to take a negative and turn it into something positive: to be more stable, to have housing, to have a job,” Cullen said. “I help provide support to those who need support; however, while still holding them accountable.”

Individuals tend to be in the program for about 14 months, but it can be up to 18 months, depending on how they are doing and if they’ve had any setbacks. There are four phases of the program: Stability, Maintenance, Wellness, and Healthy Choices/Lifestyles. Cullen said the program is about growth and keeping them stable.

“I love the team aspect that we have going on,” Cullen said of the program. “I get to see the end of a case, which is nice.”

Before joining the Behavioral Health Court team in 2020, she worked in the House Arrest program that she helped launch when she was hired by Douglas County in 2017 after working in Johnson County’s House Arrest program for 15 years.

Criminal Justice Services Director Pam Weigand said Cullen convened a stakeholder group, and they played a significant role in crafting policy and procedures for the House Arrest program. Cullen soon became the House Arrest Officer and was responsible for monitoring clients assigned to the program. She continues to assist with training new staff in House Arrest program procedures and serves as the backup House Arrest Officer when needed.

The program was created to keep court-approved individuals serving a sentence out of custody and living within the community. The program is monitored 24 hours a day, seven days per week. Monitoring must be ordered by the Court and may include electronic monitoring and remote breathalyzer tests.

Cullen described her work with house arrest as more quick-paced because there are more clients who spend less time in the program. The average time in the program is about two months; however, they can be on house arrest for a much longer or shorter time.

“Jolene is a valuable member of our team. She brought with her years of experience working in house arrest, which was instrumental in developing the Douglas County House Arrest program.  The program was able to get up and running quickly and created sentencing alternatives for local courts,” said Adult Services Supervisor Shannon Young, of Douglas County Criminal Justice Services.

Additionally, Cullen helped create a new food pantry in partnership with Just Food. The pantry provides food to clients engaged in services with Criminal Justice Services.

Cullen grew up on a farm in Iowa and became interested in law after getting into trouble herself as a teen. She was helped by a probation officer and that experience piqued her interest in pursuing a career in criminal justice and helping others.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in criminal justice. After graduation, she worked in child abuse investigations for one year in Georgia. She then moved back to Iowa where she did foster care placements and supervised the contract homes.

After 9-11, she moved to the Kansas City area and began working for Johnson County as a juvenile corrections officer and then as a house arrest officer.

“It has been a great 23 years,” she said, of her career. “I love the law. I believe laws are necessary to have a safe society. I also believe in defendants rising above a bad chapter in their life.”

Cullen teaches criminal justice courses at MidAmerica Nazarene University and Highland Community College.

Cullen has served on the five-member Eudora City Commission for eight years and was just re-elected to another four-year term. She initially ran for the seat because nobody else had filed for the position. “I was like, ‘What? Why doesn’t somebody want to make the city better? Why doesn’t somebody want to be involved?’”

So, she decided to run for office. It was a huge step for her because of the publicity that comes with being a community leader. “I didn’t use social media and I was very much off-grid as much as possible until that point.”

The Eudora City Commission meets twice a month, and she described the work as time-consuming, but important and fun. “I enjoy representing my community.”

Her favorite pastime is traveling, and when she’s not traveling, she planning her next adventure. She has visited 42 states and 20 countries.

As a college student, she got to travel abroad to military bases through a program called Camp Adventure that was run by the University of Northern Iowa. The camps were for children of military personnel. Cullen served as a camp counselor for one year and then as a camp director for two years. “They provided housing and a stipend. It was an extremely cheap way to see other countries,” she said. Through the program, she was based in Okinawa, Japan, which is one of her favorite destinations.

In 2016, she started helping others plan trips as a travel agent.

“I like to help others whether it is to better a city, creating a getaway or helping students studying criminal justice find their career paths,” she said.

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