Two and a half years ago, Anna Witt, 29, was arrested and booked into the Douglas County Correctional Facility. She describes that moment as the darkest point in her life, but also as the turning point. “When I was arrested that was the beginning of my life for me, and I’m so blessed that it happened.”
Anna qualified and agreed to participate in the Douglas County Behavioral Health Court program. The program, which started in 2017, aims to connect defendants with community support services and reduce criminal involvement of defendants who suffer from serious mental illness. Douglas County provides $457,000 annually in funding for the program.
So far, 11 individuals have graduated from Behavioral Health Court and Anna was the second to do so. Once they’ve completed the program, District Attorney Charles Branson dismisses the charges. “We are trying to keep people like Anna from having convictions that affect their future,” he said.
Anna’s father, Mark Witt, who works for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, believes the Behavioral Health Court program saved her life. “We just couldn’t get her the help she needed,” he said. “She’s doing incredible now.”
Anna began receiving Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) through Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center while she was in the Douglas County Correctional Facility. DBT is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that tries to identify and change negative thinking patterns and pushes for positive behavioral changes. She then moved into Bridges, a transitional group home for people with mental illnesses that is owned and operated by Bert Nash.
While living at Bridges, Witt attended treatment sessions, worked at the First United Methodist Church’s Women’s Fresh Start program and studied to earn her high school diploma. She said the staff members at Bridges helped her with homework, especially algebra. “They are the reason that I have a high school diploma. The help that they provided was invaluable,” she said.
She met regularly with Behavioral Health Court probation officer Shannon Bruegge, who oversaw her progress. Bruegge said individuals in the program go through a four-phase process:
- Phase 1 – Stabilization. The purpose of this phase is to establish a partnership with participants and work towards a shared goal of stability. This phase emphasizes helping participants obtain or sustain housing, create routines to assist in daily activities, and begin treatment.
- Phase 2 – Maintain. This phase emphasizes continuance in mental health and substance abuse treatment, maintenance of stable housing, progress towards employment or education, continuing compliance with probation requirements, and no new arrests.
- Phase 3 – Wellness. The purpose of this phase is to support the participant in moving from maintenance to wellness through a process of defining goals and solidifying wellness practices into daily routines. Additionally, participants develop a plan to complete court obligations, which can include payment of restitution, court fees or community service. Ideas for service projects are proposed by the participant for team approval.
- Phase 4 – Giving back. Participants complete a service project. The project is an opportunity for participants to share their talents and skills in making a service contribution to the community. Giving back also is a way for consolidating and deepening the gains they have made. This phase is about healthy choices and living a healthy lifestyle.
Anna described Bruegge as someone who had a major impact on her outcome. “She treated me with nothing but respect, and she was nothing but helpful. She was a major influence in my story,” Anna said.
Individuals also meet regularly with District Judge Sally Pokorny. She visits with them to learn how they are doing and gives them short-term goals. If they achieve them, they receive small rewards - candy, gift cards, personal items and/or raffle tickets for a chance to win a basket of items. Anna said, “Judge Pokorny is a beautiful soul. Sitting in those court proceedings, she treated all of us with such compassion and not like a systemic issue.”
Anna’s service project was working in the afterschool art program at Women’s Fresh Start. She was a mentor for children and worked on art projects with them. “It was an awesome experience,” she said.
Since graduating from Behavioral Health Court, Anna has moved into an apartment and is working at two jobs. At one of them, she recently was promoted to supervisor. She’s also working on her health by going to the gym.
“I’m doing amazing,” she said, during a recent interview. “But, that doesn’t mean life is always great. Just because I was in this program, doesn’t mean it fixed everything. It gave me tools to help on a daily basis.” For example, DBT helped her identify her triggers and then taught her how to manage them. Witt also learned the importance of communication. “It’s about how you speak to people and being humble.”
Witt said she’s not proud of her past. “I was not the person who I am today, and I’m not going to sugar coat that.” Witt described herself as a rebellious teen who was promiscuous, lashed out at people, and ran away from home. “I was absolutely horrible,” she said.
At age 18, she moved into a studio apartment and worked as a janitor. She also entered into a tumultuous relationship. “I was popping Adderall like Skittles,” she said. “I was not living a good life.”
Three years later, she lost her job and had to leave the apartment. The relationship also ended. She moved back into her parents’ home and entered into a severe depression. “I went home completely defeated. I was destroyed at that point,” she said.
She spent the next five years depressed and mostly in bed. “I didn’t accomplish anything, and I gained a large amount of weight,” she said.
An altercation would land her in jail and that would be the turning point. She described Behavioral Health Court, Bridges, and Women’s Fresh Start as the best experiences of her life. “I don’t let that darkness rule me anymore,” she said.
Bruegge said she’s happy for Anna. “She was a wonderful client to help through this tough time in her life. She was eager to make changes in her life and just needed the team to wrap around her and help provide a map to accomplish the journey.”
BY KARREY BRITT | Communications Specialist