GRACE is key to restorative justice

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Ground-level Response and Coordinated Engagement, or GRACE, is the new proposed program aimed squarely at reducing victimization, saving costs to taxpayers and helping to transform and stabilize the lives of people who need help. The City of Bellingham, Whatcom County Health Department, the Opportunity Council, PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center and Whatcom Alliance for Healthcare Advancement teamed up to plan and deliver this program.

The GRACE program works like this: people who come into frequent contact with police, fire, the hospital, courts and jail have the option of getting help and treatment that addresses the underlying causes of why they are so frequently using these services. This is done by case managers coordinated with law enforcement, fire, the jail and the hospital.

Based on evidence from other programs across the state, we know several key pieces need to be in place locally to start to see results for GRACE: We need the new 32 bed Triage facility to come online for mental health and substance use disorder patients, an increase of specially trained Bellingham Police officers and Whatcom County Sheriff’s Crisis Prevention Intervention Team deputies, and referral to services that actually exist—like clean and sober housing and mental health treatment. But perhaps the most important element is a treatment coordination team of professionals from law enforcement, social services, fire and healthcare.

Although several programs in the region were studied, GRACE most closely resembles Everett’s CHART program (Chronic High User Alternate Response Team). After one year, CHART saw a 78 percent decrease in arrests, an 80 percent decrease in Emergency Medical Service contacts and a 92 percent decrease in jail days, saving taxpayers in unrecoverable costs and freeing up those services to respond to emergencies.

In Bellingham and Whatcom County, GRACE could work with individuals who are frequently cited or arrested by police, use emergency medical services frequently and in inappropriate ways, may or may not be homeless, and/or are often in jail. Many of these individuals have psychiatric impairment, chronic mental illness, substance use disorder and other conditions that make their cases complex. GRACE team service providers work together, sharing information to provide the best interventions, treatment and outcomes for its members.

Success for GRACE means more effective use of crisis services and law enforcement, more engagement—and compliance—with treatment and supportive services, less emergency room visits and EMS calls, fewer law enforcement contacts, jail bookings and jail bed days.

A great example of a treatment intervention program that already exists locally is Bellingham Fire Department’s Community Paramedic program. Prior to the program, some individuals called 911 so often that it was the equivalent of shutting down a fire station for half of a year. The Community Paramedic literally performs house calls for patients whose conditions are often chronic and non-emergent and more appropriate for primary care. The patient is then directed to an office-based physician. When problems are more complex, the Community Paramedic involves a team of case managers, who link the patient with other resources.

Interventions like Community Paramedic, when coordinated with other response systems like the hospital, police and intensive case management, have shown that they improve the lives of individuals, reduce crime and victimization. And taxpayers pay for services like police and fire as they are intended to be used. GRACE will be a very important tool among local strategies to end homelessness, curb unwelcome behaviors in our downtown urban center and reduce our jail population.

Dan Hammill is a member of the GRACE planning team and serves as Bellingham City Council’s Ward 3 representative.

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