Thursday, May 6, 2021

The Law, Health Policy & Disability Center (LHPDC) was recently awarded a $35,000 grant from the Nellie Ball Trust Research Fund to support a one-year research project in collaboration with Polk County Health Services (PCHS) and the Polk County Jail Diversion Program. 

LHPDC is one of many centers and institutes connected to the College of Law. The centers and institutes at Iowa Law do important work across subject matters. They collaborate with faculty across the university and provide students with rich opportunities for education, service, and scholarship through research assistantships. LHPDC conducts research in the areas of law, health, and disability and is the independent evaluator of disability services for the Polk County MDHS Region.

The Nellie Ball Trust Research Fund administers grant funding to stimulate research in the areas of paranoia, schizophrenia, and legal issues affecting individuals with mental disabilities. The research team behind the funded proposal includes LHPDC staff, David Klein, PhD, and Tessa Heeren, MSW, and Chris Veeh, PhD, from the University of Iowa School of Social Work. 

David Klein, the director of technology at the center shared, “This is an opportunity for researchers at the UI to partner with the practitioners on the ground at PCHS and Jail Diversion to gain a better understanding of what makes the program effective.” 

People with mental illness are disproportionately represented in jail populations and often lack the connections to services and community supports necessary to maintain stability and safety. 

“Jail shouldn’t be a person’s first encounter with mental health treatment, and while jails have some capacity for social services, arrests exacerbate problems for people with mental illness and ongoing community-based support is needed,” said Tessa Heeren, research manager at LHPDC.

To reduce disparities and improve quality of life, the Polk County Jail Diversion Program serves people with mental illness by coordinating services across the health, social services, and criminal justice systems. Ultimately, Jail Diversion attempts to support successful reentry into the community and prevent future arrests (along with other crisis events and emergency services).

“We’re aiming to provide evidence to justify the allocation of resources toward preventive services, which benefit the community in both cost-effectiveness and wellness,” said Heeren. 

Program participants are eligible for an array of services, including assistance navigating housing, benefit enrollment, employment, community integration, and mental and physical health care. 

Polk County Health Services oversees the Jail Diversion Program along with supportive services provided to people with disabilities,” says Annie Uetz, a program planner with Polk County Health Services. “Together with the Diversion Program we have acquired significant experience and data that can inform this research.” 

The proposed research collaboration is a mixed-methods evaluation of the Jail Diversion Program for people with severe mental illness. The research aims to identify factors associated with positive and negative outcomes to better understand and improve the Polk County Jail Diversion Program. 

The jail diversion supervisor, Tim Larson, who has been with the program since inception says, “While believing this has been a very successful program, I welcome the opportunity for additional growth and improvement. I look forward to seeing what the research and data reflects, so the program can enhance its service to incarcerated individuals with mental health, and other special needs.”