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Troup County Mental Health Court grants second chances

By Tyler H. Jones

tjones@civitasmedia.com

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LaGRANGE — Shannon Hart was 32 years old before she ever touched drugs, she said.

At the time, she was seeing an emotionally and physically abusive man, and after the final attack, she’d had enough. She told the man to leave her house and not come back — even though he’d been drinking.

“I don’t usually don’t let anybody leave my house if they’ve been drinking,” she said.

That day was different, though. It changed the course of her entire life.

The man wrecked his car shortly after leaving and was left with severe injuries in a coma. He survived, but has been in and out of hospitals ever since.

Hart said she initially blamed herself for the man’s injuries, and fell into a deep depression that was only compounded by her new-found affinity for methamphetamine.

Now at age 43, she’s finally sober again and is reflecting on what she remembers of the past 10 years as part of her treatment in the Troup County Mental Health Court.

Hart was arrested in Troup earlier this year when a police officer found two meth pipes in her vehicle. Instead of prison, though, she was placed in the mental health court because of her bipolar disorder and borderline personality dysfunction.

“I also have severe anxiety, and I’ve even had one doctor tell me I was schizophrenic,” she said.

The mental health court, set up in 2013 and run by a team of professionals and Troup County Superior Court Chief Judge A. Quillian Baldwin, is aimed at keeping people out of prison and in treatment they need, said Tiffany Hutchinson, coordinator of the court.

“Mental health court is the accountability court program that takes mentally ill offenders who would normally be sent to jail or prison. … They have the option of being sentenced to mental health court and they can get mental health treatment they need instead of being in jail.”

Today, 23 people participate in the court, Hutchinson said. The court meets every other Tuesday, and participants are required to meet with Hutchinson periodically throughout the week.

“Usually throughout the week, they have to come in and check in with me,” Hutchinson said. “If there’s anything I need to tell them, then I let them know. That’s multiple times a week depending on how many times they have drug screens. Some people come more than others, but they all come at least once a week.”

Before each court hearing, the treatment team meets and discusses the upcoming proceedings.

“That’s when we discuss what’s going on with each participant,” she said. “Have they gone to their counseling sessions? Does it seem like they’re stable on meds? Have they had any positive drug screens? Have they had any need for crisis stabilization?”

People spend at least 12 months in mental health court for misdemeanor charges and 18 months for felonies. Each charge requires the set amount of time, and if a person has two misdemeanors, for example, then he or she spends 24 months in the court.

“We’ve found in the past that if we had someone who has severe mental illness and more than one charge, then that’s just not long enough to work with someone,” Hutchinson said.

Hart, who’s been in the program since August, said she’s finally found the support she needs to manage her life and stay on track.

“The support has helped me the most, and there’s a lot of support,” she said. “I don’t usually trust too many strangers, I’m real shy usually at first, but I’ve gotten to where sometimes, I feel like I almost depend on them too much. I used to be a really independent person.”

That support and guidance has helped her to set goals and keep an eye on her mental health, she said.

“I realize now that I’m more capable of doing things than I thought I was,” she said. “I’ve come a long way since June. I was really bad on drugs until about April. I caught the charge in 2014, which led me here. I relapsed, then I got off drugs, then I got back on them. But, I don’t know what I would have done without this mental health court.”

Now, Hart is looking forward to changing her life and spending more time with her family.

“I’m looking forward to being able to be a mother and a grandmother to my children,” she said. “I’ve come a long way with them. One time, my daughter disowned me because of all of this. Right now, I’m living with my daughter and I’m supposed to move into my own place here in about two weeks.”

Hart knows she made a mistake in the past, but is thankful for the opportunity the mental health court has provided her.

“I just know deep down in my heart,” she said, pausing to hold back tears. “… I was originally supposed to go to prison on this sentence … I fought to get the mental health court. Going to prison just teaches you more how to be a criminal, and I’m not a criminal. Mental health court has given me another chance a life.”

For more information about the Troup County Mental Health Court, visit www.troupcountyga.org/accountability_courts.html

Reporter’s note: Shannon Hart’s name has been changed to protect her health privacy rights.

Tyler H. Jones is a reporter for LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached by calling 706-884-7311, ext. 2155.