Toward a Safer Rockford: When Mental Health Meets Criminal Justice

In a city where 1 in 5 people experience a mental health challenge, there’s a growing recognition that illness and addiction reach far beyond an individual. Now, law enforcement, courts, nonprofits, health care providers and concerned families are coalescing behind a new paradigm for achieving community safety and prosperity.

“The voices told me to do it.”

When she hears those words, Donna Addison knows what can come next. As a counselor and therapist for more than 30 years, she’s heard the stories too many times: setting fire to the apartment, breaking into a neighbor’s home or car, stealing things, getting lost in drugs, running through the streets, going to jail.

“Had they not had a mental illness, they would not have done those things and they wouldn’t have ended up in jail,” says Addison, project and development manager for Stepping Stones of Rockford.

Because the nonprofit agency takes on individuals with mental illnesses, Addison knows these can be extreme examples, but stories like this are all too common in a city where nearly 1 in 5 residents reports having some form of mental health challenge. The struggle doesn’t have to involve voices. For most people, it’s feelings of depression or anxiety, an unstable mood, suicidal or homicidal thoughts, or an addiction that’s out of control.

When left unchecked, these feelings have a very real possibility of involving the criminal justice system. Theft, property damage, suicide, domestic violence, disruptive behavior, overdoses and murder are all possible outcomes, though it’s also just as likely for someone to become the victim of a crime.

It’s a lot for the police to keep up with, on top of the gang activity, domestic disputes, targeted shootings and juvenile crime that have gripped Rockford this year.

Mental illness and substance abuse threaten an individual’s health, safety and prosperity, but these are also challenges to the community at large. It’s up to the criminal justice system, health care providers, families, friends and employers to pick up the shattered pieces left behind after a mental health crisis.

In the effort to uproot crime in Rockford, there’s a growing focus around the need for treatment of mental illness and substance abuse, and there’s a growing coalition centered around this effort.

It takes an intensive wraparound of support, including treatment, counseling, medication and supportive living to help a person find healing. But accessing treatment hasn’t always been easy. There’s a stigma around these conditions. There’s a lack of awareness of treatments. And there’s almost always a waiting list.

But even when you overcome all of those barriers, there’s still one grim truth in the pursuit of better mental health: You have to recognize there’s a problem and want to seek help before you can find healing. As a community, Rockford is well on its way to seeking help.

Leading the Charge

Mental illnesses haven’t always been met with compassion. There was once a time when people were shipped off to prison or confined to an institution. Conditions there were often deplorable, yet many considered this the only way to help individuals and protect the community. Not until the 1950s, with the introduction of medications that could treat severe mental illness, did things start to change.

Jason Holcomb

“It became a paradigm shift in the mental health field,” says Jason Holcomb, director of community impact for Region 1 Planning Council and staff liaison to the Winnebago County Community Mental Health Board. “People saw that, wow, maybe there is a way for someone with serious mental health issues to recover and not be confined to an institution but to actually live in their community with friends and family.”

The standard today leans toward independence with community support, and though that’s remained the goal among policymakers and nonprofit agencies, reality hasn’t kept up with the vision.

“When someone is taken out of a hospital environment and they can’t functionally thrive in a traditional housing environment, they can’t maintain their activities of daily living,” says Holcomb. “They need something with more supports, but those don’t always exist.”

Area nonprofits like Stepping Stones, Remedies Renewing Lives, and Rosecrance provide many supports, but funding is a chronic challenge. And then, there’s also the problem of access, because it takes transportation, money and personal investment for someone to stay on the medication that keeps them stable.

Should any of these supports change or drop off – including medication, family and services – a mental health crisis is more likely. In the midst of a crisis, law enforcement becomes one path to intervention, but it’s not the only option.

“One in eight emergency room visits are related to mental illness or substance abuse, and that seems super-high to me,” says Danielle Angileri, executive director of NAMI Northern Illinois, a nonprofit advocate for those experiencing mental illness. “Consider that seven out of 10 youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosed mental health condition. But that’s just diagnosed, versus undiagnosed. It might be even higher.”

As much as these crises impact public systems, there’s also a private toll.

“Mental illness is causing serious functional impairments that affect all of us, because you either experience it yourself or you know someone who does,” says Holcomb. “It’s a family member or a friend, and at some point in your life it might be you. So, we have to understand this is a pervasive population health problem we are all impacted by on some level.”

Now, the paradigm is shifting once again. The Winnebago County Community Mental Health Board (WCCMHB), introduced in 2020 and supported by a half-cent sales tax, is refocusing the community’s response to mental illness. Since its creation, the board has handed out more than $14.6 million to nearly 30 programs aimed at better mental health care. Holcomb says the independent public board will award up to $20 million more this summer.

Recipients include police agencies, youth programs, outreach to seniors, case management, behavioral health services, health care providers and drug rehabilitators. In several cases, organizations are coming together in new ways to reach people along a spectrum of needs, from early intervention to serious crisis and long-term support. One of the major benefits is the ability to provide stable, long-term funding that’s tied to local priorities – rather than state and national priorities, says Holcomb.

“We get to do new things. We get to fill gaps and be innovative,” he adds. “The exciting thing is when we go outside the Rockford area and talk about it. People are blown away by the amount of innovation.”

Thanks to WCCMHB funding, inmates at the county jail are receiving substance abuse and mental health treatments while in custody. Psychiatric nurses and clinicians are assisting with 911 calls. Community groups are addressing youth trauma and criminal activities, while Children’s Home & Aid is repairing families. The YMCA, the Rockford Park District, Lifescape, OSF HealthCare, Crusader Community Health and the county health department are involved, too.

At Stepping Stones, WCCMHB funds are expanding counseling resources and providing more group housing.

“There’s just so much out there now that wasn’t there, but these grants are all thanks to taxpayers,” says Addison. “The taxpayers have no idea the good they’ve done. They have no idea.”

How it Starts

“John” calls the police several times a day, and each time the dispatcher sends out a patrol unit. There’s no crime being committed. There’s no arrestable offense. Yet every call is taking valuable time that could be used for serious crimes.

It used to be that the patrol officer simply visited John, wrote a report and moved on. Now, thanks in part to funding from WCCMHB, the dispatcher deploys a special unit. The Crisis Co-Response Team (CCRT) joins Rockford Police Department, the Winnebago County Sheriff, Loves Park, Ill., police and Rosecrance to tackle the situation. Every member of the team receives Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), a specialized philosophy in de-escalating mental health crises and similar situations.

Assistant Deputy Chief Michael Dalke

The idea is that a plainclothes officer, paired with a medical health clinician, will be more approachable, better trained, and better resourced to help an individual overcome his or her crisis. Hours or days later, the officers and their clinician partners follow up with people like “John.” The goal is never to arrest someone, says Michael Dalke, assistant deputy chief for the Rockford Police Department. Rather, the emphasis is to connect someone with the best support.

“Our guys are going to look at the root cause of the problem,” says Dalke. “It may be something simple, like, ‘Hey, John just isn’t taking his medication. And the reason he isn’t is because he doesn’t have transportation to Walgreens to get it.’ So, let’s take John out to Walgreens and help him get his medication. We’ll follow up with him to see how he is and if he’s taking his meds. You’ll see that his couple of daily calls are going to fall off.”

The follow-up and engagement make this approach truly unique, says Brandon Wells, a Rockford Police Department CCRT officer with more than 20 years of law enforcement experience. These officers do lots of troubleshooting as they help people through the moment – including the realization that something’s not right.

“If somebody is really refusing help, and they don’t meet the criteria for us to take them involuntarily to the hospital, then there’s not a whole lot we can do,” Wells says. “It’s tough to tell family members that.”

Because follow-up is part of the process, families typically have an open line of communication with officers like Wells. Last year, CCRT had 6,442 interactions, according to Rosecrance.

“After we get involved, oftentimes the family will call us directly,” he says. “My brother, I think he’s starting another episode. Can you guys come check on him?”

CCRT shows up and finds out the brother missed his medications, so now the clinicians use their resources to get the brother medication, counseling or inpatient treatment.

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In the past, police responding to a despondent person would have few options to help. Now, the Crisis Co-Responder Team can help the person seek treatment.

“Because otherwise, if our unit wasn’t there, the family probably would have waited until he got into a full-blown episode, the patrol officers are called because he’s off his medications, and he ends up in the emergency room,” says Wells. “The emergency room would stabilize him and send him home and the cycle would continue.”

Referrals also come directly from patrol and probation officers. Recently, a patrol officer asked Wells to check on a man who seemed despondent. The CCRT clinician found the man was at high risk for suicide, so with a little convincing the team brought him to an inpatient facility. Two weeks later, he was still there and getting help to live independently again.

“Before, if the patrol officer did a suicide or despondent subject report, you took them to the hospital or didn’t take them, and that was it,” says Wells. “Now, every day we search reports and say, ‘Who’s this person? Is he one of ours?’”

“There’s so much more communication than before,” adds Rockford Police CCRT officer Nathan Kohanyi.

Dalke, who oversees the CCRT team and other special police units, is a direct line between families and the police. He hears the stories from grateful families who feel they have no other option.

“We try to assure them we’re going to do everything we can when all of this is taking place,” he says. “People are in tears, and they don’t know what to do. Their spouses have emptied their bank accounts and moved all their property onto the porch. They’re doing things that are very irrational. We’re just listening to them and guaranteeing we’re going to find a solution.”

When all else fails, jail is still an option, says Dalke, adding that sometimes a trip to jail is what a person needs to sober up, particularly if they’re addicted to drugs or alcohol.
“Our officers will go to all of the court hearings,” he adds. “They’ll speak directly with the state’s attorney or the public defender or the individual’s private attorney. At the end of the day, it’s not about sending someone to prison or keeping them in jail. It’s what will it take for this person to get treatment.”

Help For families
Not everyone who experiences a mental illness will end up in the criminal justice system. Yet, when a family member is struggling with mental illness or addiction, it’s often difficult to know where to turn. In some cases, calling the police feels like a last resort, say local law enforcement officers.

There is hope. For nearly 40 years, NAMI Northern Illinois has helped to educate, support and advocate for those who are experiencing mental illness and the families trying to care for them. Born from two mothers’ struggles raising children with schizophrenia in Madison, Wis., NAMI is now an international movement to help reduce the stigma and misunderstanding that still surround mental health crises.

“You can’t just care your way out of mental illness,” says Danielle Angileri, executive director of NAMI Northern Illinois. “Treatment is needed almost always, because there’s a whole spectrum of mental illness, and it can really impact your functioning in society. All of us have mental health, and any of us could find ourselves down that path.”

The nonprofit organization hosts nine peer-led support groups that target people with mental illnesses and their families. Advocating for adults, group home residents, teens, Spanish-speakers, and parents or caregivers, these groups are led by people who share their own experiences and encourage others to open up. They struggle with legal, financial, medical or insurance challenges, among other issues. Burnout is common among caregivers.

“Knowing they’re not alone gives people hope,” says Angileri. “They feel like they can’t always talk to loved ones or others in their environment because they don’t understand. It gives them hope seeing that we can get through this, and so can you.”

NAMI Northern Illinois always welcomes volunteers and financial support.
Learn More or find help at

In the System

Once a person enters the criminal justice system, there are several routes their case can take. Supposing they’re a first-time, nonviolent offender charged with certain low-level crimes – shoplifting or property damage, for example – their case is likely to pass Collin Dougherty’s desk at the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s office. As coordinator of the deferred prosecution programs, also known as DIVERT, Dougherty offers a way to turn things around.

Through deferred prosecution, a person may undergo assessments for mental health or substance abuse to identify underlying causes. They may also be asked to complete community service, attend counseling or drug treatment, and pay restitution.

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Mental health crises have the potential to lead to crimes, particularly property crimes such as burglary, theft or breaking in to cars and buildings. Over the past four decades, property crimes have dropped by 65%.

If they follow the rules, complete the expectations and commit no new crimes, they’ll avoid a conviction. If they don’t cooperate, the case goes back to court.

“If they took probation or court supervision, then that would require them to plead guilty,” says Dougherty. “Deferred prosecution allows an accused to avoid a conviction on their record.”

“It’s especially nice if you’re a young adult just getting started in the world,” adds Anne Stevens, assistant state’s attorney in the problem-solving courts. “Criminal convictions can have an impact on your education and your job or even housing, if there’s a misdemeanor. Convictions can be very limiting, and a lot of people don’t realize that.”

Since last April, about 120 people have entered into deferred prosecution, Dougherty adds. About 35 have successfully completed, and just one person dropped out. The remainder are still working toward their goals, in a process that typically takes six to 12 months. Thanks to a recent grant from the State of Illinois, the program is taking about twice as many people as it was the year before. Defense attorneys are increasingly aware of this option, too.

“One by one, we are looking at novel and creative solutions to ensure that a person doesn’t commit any additional crimes,” says J. Hanley, Winnebago County State’s Attorney. “It’s really about preventing recidivism. We’re looking at things outside the traditional prosecution model to make our community safer, and I think that’s what the public wants.”

Of course, not every case resolves itself so quickly. Stevens works closely with the 17th Judicial Circuit’s problem-solving courts to take on some of the toughest of the tough cases – the people who’ve cycled through the criminal justice system for years and are now facing serious criminal charges.

Problem-solving courts in Winnebago County take on five types of challenging cases: substance use disorders, mental illness, veterans’ issues, juveniles, and families involved with the child welfare system. These cases appear in Drug Court, Therapeutic Intervention Program, Veterans Court, Family Recovery Court and Youth Recovery Court. Those who appear in problem-solving courts are there voluntarily, typically referred by an attorney, a family member or a probation officer. They agree to plead guilty and undergo an intensive program that’s aimed at turning their lives around.

For someone facing substance abuse and/or mental health issues, the path is likely to include therapy, case management, random drug tests, meetings with a probation officer and multiple appearances in court every week, sometimes for as long as two to three years. Often, they come straight from jail.

Emily Behnke

“The research shows that these intensive court supervision programs are best at serving those who are high risk, high need,” says Emily Behnke, deputy court administrator for the 17th Circuit’s specialized court programs. “So, that means a high risk to reoffend and a high need as far as behavioral health – substance abuse disorder, mental health or a co-occurring disorder. So, we’re targeting those people who wouldn’t probably be successful on standard probation or may not be successful on court supervision. Those are individuals who had those opportunities and they didn’t work, so now we’re trying to level up the intensity.”

Each of the program’s four levels is gradually less intense and more independent. Participants receive a certificate from the judge with each level they finish – a small token of encouragement along their journey.

“We do hold graduation ceremonies,” says Behnke. “We’ve received feedback from participants that for some of them it’s the first time they’ve completed something. It’s the first certificate they’ve received. So, we try to make those really big occasions around here.”

The 17th Circuit was among the first in Illinois to deploy a problem-solving court when it opened drug court in 2005. The Therapeutic Intervention Program, which addresses mental health, began a year later. Behnke, Stevens and Judge Janet Holmgren are now certified to train other Illinois circuits.

In Winnebago County last year, 281 people passed through the problem-solving courts, 126 of them new enrollments. At least 154 moved through drug court, while another 108 were involved with the mental health court. Across all five special courts, 50 people successfully finished, with the rest still in progress.

Interestingly, only about 30% will successfully finish, says Behnke, adding that’s on par with national averages.

These are hard cases where people face grueling personal challenges. Addiction and mental illness threaten to derail progress. Motivation and personal initiative lag.

Knowing the consequences are incarceration – perhaps 8 to 10 years, says Stevens – sometimes prison just feels like the easy way out.

It’s a sobering reality, but there’s still hope.

“They follow up with us later and say, ‘You know what? That gave me time to think about what I needed. I needed that reset, and now you’ve linked me with treatment,’” Behnke says. “I know that when I come back into the community, I know who I need to see to get my medications and what I need to do. So, although it wasn’t necessarily a successful outcome data-wise, it helped propel them in the right direction.”

Both Behnke and Stevens find it’s often the older defendants, the ones who’ve had previous interventions within the criminal justice system, that take problem-solving court most seriously. Perhaps they’ve been here before, or else they’ve tried rehab and other measures to no effect.

“A lot of times, it’s my older defendants who say, ‘I’m sick of ripping and running. I want to do this. I want to do better for my kids,’” says Stevens. “And they’ve started to address this. They can’t reverse the past, but we can help them build on a better future.”

For those who are successful, it’s a life-changing adjustment.

“At graduation, it’s not uncommon for people to say, ‘I thought this was a setup, but I wanted out of jail, so I did it,’” says Behnke. “And that’s OK. We know that on the front end, this may be difficult for them and they may not want to do this necessarily, but there has been research that shows that coerced treatment and requiring people to obtain treatment is impactful and successful.”

Transition to Society

Stepping Stones of Rockford targets serious mental illnesses and populations that need a high level of support.

“We can reach more people and interrupt the cycle of getting in the criminal justice system, when really you need mental health treatment so that you can stay out of the system,” says project and development manager Addison.

Donna Addison

At the same time, these individuals are uniquely vulnerable in other ways.

“Individuals with serious mental illness are more likely to be a victim of crime than to perpetrate a crime,” says Sue Schroeder, CEO of Stepping Stones.

The nonprofit organization oversees five group homes in Rockford where residents receive 24-hour supervised support. Services also reach those who can live mostly independently and who need counseling, case management or medication support. Over the past year, Stepping Stones has taken on an additional 100 clients, thanks in part to WCCMHB support, yet Addison expects to serve as many as 300 individuals by the end of this year.

Individuals typically start in the most supported environment, where they receive 24-hour care. As treatment progresses, they step into less-restrictive environments, from partial supervision to support without supervision and, eventually, independent living. Even in this final phase, Stepping Stones may provide counseling and other supports as needed. The journey may last a lifetime.

Among those who pass through Stepping Stones, it’s not uncommon to find people who’ve encountered the criminal justice system. In fact, some group home residents have been ruled unfit to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity. These residents may come from the Elgin Mental Health Center, a state-operated psychiatric hospital in Elgin, Ill., after showing the court a period of stability and adherence to medications and treatments. In Rockford, these individuals receive intensive therapy and support that keeps them stable. Safety for the individual and the community is a high priority, says Addison.

“If we have a concern, the courts are right there to reinforce expectations, and they can return the person to Elgin or the correctional system if necessary,” she adds. “Living in the community is possible for those who choose to make the most of their treatment and continue their recovery – which is, of course, what we are always pulling for.”

The possibility of sliding back is all too real. Sometimes, these individuals don’t even realize there’s an issue until they’re once more breaking into places, stealing things and causing other trouble that lands them back in jail and the cycle begins again. They may also experience anosognosia, a condition where an individual doesn’t recognize their need for help.

“Right now, we have a client who’s really struggling to be re-engaged in our services,” says Addison. “The community support team is out there, the police are involved, CCRT is involved, UW Health SwedishAmerican is involved. Everyone is trying to help this person until he decides he’s ready to re-enter treatment. Everyone is trying to coordinate services to get this guy back here. And unfortunately, while he was out of services he acted in a way I believe he would not have if he had been fully in our care.”

Escaping an Addiction

As a mental health and addiction counselor for more than three decades, Kathy Branning has seen many people show up scared, pressured by family, motivated by friends or forced by the courts to finally address their behavior. Perhaps they’ve stolen things, damaged property, hurt others or committed other crimes as a result of their addiction to drugs, alcohol or gambling. Maybe it’s their way of coping with an undiagnosed mental illness.

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Addiction to drugs and alcohol is a mental illness, and although local residents report below-average excessive drinking, it’s still a serious issue.

“A lot of times you can just hear someone say, ‘I was sick and tired of being sick and tired,’” says the vice president of behavioral health services for Remedies Renewing Lives.

The nonprofit, located at 215 and 220 Easton Parkway in Rockford, has spent more than 60 years helping people to get clean and stay sober. The group now focuses on a range of behavioral health services to treat co-occurring mental/behavioral health and substance use disorders. Support may come in the form of individual and group counseling, education groups, a methadone clinic and gambling addiction services, among other approaches.

Asking for help is always the hardest part but is typically where it starts, Branning says. True change can’t happen until the individual recognizes the problem.

“The big milestone is getting that person to shift from externalizing – my girlfriend made me come or the judge made me come – to saying, ‘I really do belong here. This really will help me,’” she says. “That’s a huge step in someone’s recovery. Then, we see the client put into action those behavioral changes.”

It’s a challenging journey to recovery, and it might well be a lifelong struggle. There are many hurdles along the way. It’s difficult when someone encounters old friends and old places, such as a beloved bar or a spot where they bought drugs. Old hurts resurface. Relationships have to be repaired. Trust has to be restored. Negative thoughts resurface and poor choices tempt.

Kathy Branning

“When your mind starts spinning and you’re taking yourself down a dark road again, we teach you how to intervene, do self-interventions where you’re challenging the negative thinking and trying to tell yourself maybe that’s a good day to go to a meeting,” says Branning. “Maybe that’s a good day to reach out to your sponsor or call your therapist. There are all sorts of things you can try to do to turn around those tough hours and days, and we offer a lot of resources to help you do that.”

There’s always the threat of a relapse. The recovering addict is in a vulnerable state.
“We know that relapse can be part of the illness of addiction,” says Branning. “Our door never closes to anybody.”

Remedies gives individuals struggling with addiction or mental health issues a place to talk about their struggles and share with others the hope, joy and renewal they’ve found.
“What’s kept me in it for so long is hearing stories of hope. Those, I think, keep any of us in this work,” Branning says. “You see someone who has lost literally everything in their life – maybe their spouse has left them, they’ve alienated their children, they’ve lost many jobs, they don’t have a drivers’ license anymore, and then you see that person come in and stay connected. Suddenly, one day they’re beaming. They got a job, they kept a job and repaired some of the damage that had been done with their family.”

The Warm Handoff

Dr. Joseph Garry

Inside the Winnebago County Jail, inmates receive behavioral health support and a path toward sobriety. Funded in part by WCCMHB grants, this program enables assessment and treatment behind bars while also helping inmates to find long-term supports after their release, in what some refer to as “the warm handoff.”

In fact, as much as 68% of people who are incarcerated have a mental health or substance abuse disorder, says Dr. Joseph Garry, professor and head of the department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford.

Upon release, these individuals face a variety of challenges, from transportation and communication to housing, insurance and employment. The risk of slipping back into illness or addiction is exponential, says Garry, and it can have fatal results.

“Let’s say they’re in jail for three months and they haven’t used anything while they’re there,” says Garry. “They get released and they think they need two bags of heroin to achieve the effect they want because that’s what they were using right before they went to jail. But over those three months, they have lost all of that tolerance to the heroin.”

Not realizing the mistake, the addict ingests far more than their body can tolerate.

“That’s when they overdose,” says Garry.

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Research suggests Winnebago County residents who use narcotics are much more likely than average to die of an overdose. About 30% of residents reported using narcotics.

The rate of overdose deaths has spiked in the past decade, according to data from the Rockford Regional Health Council’s 2020 Healthy Community Study. At 32.4 per 100,000 residents, the Rockford area’s overdose death rate is now nearly double the rate of Illinois (14.1) and the U.S. (15.6).

In an effort to prevent overdoses and help addicts stay clean, the college’s Department of Family and Community Medicine launched the CARE Program with the Mile Square Health Center LP Johnson clinic. Funded entirely by WCCMHB, the program identifies inmates who want help staying clean and provides immediate services upon their release from jail.

“When they’re released, we’ll take them straight over to the clinic and then transition them into what we call a medication assistance recovery program,” says Garry. “They can start buprenorphine immediately along with Narcan. The two of them together not only reduce cravings but basically eliminate their risk of potential overdose.”

If the patient slides back into addiction, these medicines also reduce the effect of any highs, says Garry.

“If we can transition them away from substance use, then maybe that will help with some of the decisions or the actions that might have initially led them to get arrested,” says Garry.

Since the program launched in 2021, nearly 200 people have found help, and Garry says there are many signs of progress. Broader data is slim, he adds, because he’s only aware of seven other communities that have deployed such an effort.

“I would say we’ve been pretty successful in being able to get individuals to say, ‘I want to make a different choice,’ or ‘I want help,’” says Garry. “And that’s the first step they have to take. So, we’re trying to do everything we can from the minute they’re released to try and help them with their re-entry into society. We provide them with a tool and a treatment to help them in the event they fall back into substance use.”

Keeping the Streets Clean

Sgt. Luke Wagner, of the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office, knows all too well the consequences of an addiction. As a former patrol officer and now head of the Sheriff’s narcotics division, he not only sees the destructiveness caused by those who trade drugs. He also sees the personal cost many addicts pay.

“If I can stop people from burying their loved ones because they took drugs, then that’s a win,” says Wagner. “If you have a problem with someone in your family doing drugs, or you know of people who are selling drugs, call us.”

Working with the Rockford Police Department and federal agencies, Wagner and his team target the flow of illegal drugs including cocaine, heroin, marijuana and fentanyl. Last year alone, the Rockford Police department recovered 14,000 grams of cocaine, 309 grams of heroin, 113 grams of meth and 220,755 grams of cannabis. While much of the narcotics trade includes cartels and street gangs, the internet has made drugs easier to find than ever, says Wagner.

“It’s everywhere. With the internet, they can buy drugs online and have them shipped to their house,” he says.

Not surprisingly, an estimated 27% of Rockford-area residents use narcotics, according to the Healthy Community Study. Adults over age 65 and those with incomes less than $25,000 were more likely to report using drugs daily.

While the trading itself is problematic, Wagner is also troubled by the nature of what’s trading. These aren’t the same drugs as in the 1970s, which tended to be more of a pure substance, says Wagner. Most street drugs are laced with other chemicals, often substituted or mixed into a better-known product.

One of the most-used substitutes is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s oftentimes fatal. Dealers might also dilute their product with household chemicals such as rat poison, laundry detergent, baking soda and baby powder, according to Turnbridge, a Connecticut-based provider of substance abuse treatment.

Wagner recalls a time on patrol when someone smoked marijuana laced with bath salts. The combination “fried his mind,” Wagner recalls, and now the man is well-known to the CCRT team.

“One of the most dangerous things is that you don’t know the potency of these drugs,” says Wagner. “If you go to the doctor and get a prescription, you pretty well know what’s in it. If you get a sandwich bag full of drugs, you know only what the drug dealer told you is in there.”

Narcotics officers in Rockford work undercover and hold their tactics close to the vest. While investigations and traffic stops are part of that strategy, Wagner says anonymous tips are perhaps the best way to identify problems.

A confidential call to the Sheriff’s detective bureau at (815) 319-6400 or the Rockford Police Department’s Tip411 anonymous notification system are good starting points that help law enforcement zero in on the drug trade.

“The whole ‘see something, say something’ is huge for us,” says Wagner. “There are a lot of people who have been affected by drugs, and there are a lot of people who have lost loved ones because of overdoses, and they’re sick of it. I think the community in general is sick of the drug trade.”

Sustaining the Effort

At the state’s attorney’s office, there’s an age-old question that underlies one of the biggest challenges to helping those who are in the criminal justice system: How do you hold these people accountable and get them help so you can prevent their coming back into the system?

State’s Attorney J. Hanley

“That’s a question we constantly struggle with,” says Hanley. “Our office must focus its resources on serious crimes – murders and violent crime. On the other hand, we have people charged with low-level misdemeanors who are presenting with really serious problems. We know they’re likely to be coming back, and our community is hurt by the fact that this person isn’t getting the help they need.”

Where philosophy meets reality is that the system is strapped for capacity.

Rockford currently has about 167 providers per 100,000 residents, a rate far below the Illinois average of 180 and the U.S. average of 202, according to WCCMHB reports.

The need is especially acute among children, particularly those who have serious behavioral issues, says Addison, and that includes children caught in the foster care system.

The limited capacity is concerning on several levels to Danielle Angileri, executive director of NAMI Northern Illinois. Statistics show at least half of mental illnesses present before the age of 14, she says, and three-quarters show up by the age of 24. Through the nonprofit NAMI Northern Illinois, she’s pushing for greater awareness among parents, educators and physicians to recognize symptoms sooner.

“There are so many behaviors that appear before someone does something wrong that we should be able to intercept,” says Angileri.

Even those who want help can’t always get it. Many don’t know where to turn for help. Others find their health insurance won’t cover treatment or a provider won’t take their public aid, adds Branning.

Staffing is yet another challenge. Criminal justice, health care and nonprofit leaders say their organizations have an urgent need to fill job openings, but they can’t find the right people.

“This is a special population of individuals, and it can be challenging to find the right people with the right expertise,” says Garry, of the College of Medicine Rockford. It takes a deep passion to work in this field. “We have people who are, truly, very committed to the underserved within our city. Even though staffing is one of the greatest challenges, I think our people are also our greatest strength.”

Within the criminal justice system, Hanley and Behnke worry about the defendants’ access to problem-solving courts. If the Illinois SAFE-T Act’s provision cancelling cash bail survives a court challenge this spring, it means more people could bypass a key intercept point.

“Some of the hurdles we might experience will be lower enrollment in these courts,” says Behnke. “When the individuals are out of custody it can be more difficult to get them to follow through with doing those clinical assessments that are needed to get them into the program.”

For those experiencing an addiction, jail may also provide a time of “forced sobriety,” and a step toward treatment.

“There may be an opportunity for them to think through what their options are,” says Behnke. “Maybe they do want to make a change, and they’ll be more willing to do a program like this so they can return to the community in a safe way.”

Even when the stars are aligned, it still takes personal motivation to succeed in the journey to wellness.

“We can’t force drug treatment on somebody. We can’t force mental health treatment on somebody,” says Stevens. “To get better, they have to want to get better, and you see that in the more severe cases in problem-solving court. Usually, it’s to avoid going to prison. People want to get out. They’re going to be really ambitious, but those that rise to the challenge, their entire life has been upended for the good, and they’ve done wonderful things. But they have to want it.”

High Hopes

This summer marks a critical milestone for WCCMHB, as it launches its second triennial round of research and strategic planning – a critical part of its mandate. Three years from now, the board will ask voters to renew its mandate and the half-cent sales tax that delivers nearly $20 million in grants this summer.

While the WCCMHB has already kicked off waves of innovation, there’s a sense that things are only just beginning.

In many ways, this is a long-range turnaround, and these initial successes are simply the first steps to reverse the effects of unchecked mental illness and substance abuse.

“It is, in some ways, a continuation of that vision of those early de-institutionalization folks,” says Holcomb. “But then, there’s also a recognition that for us to see that mission fulfilled in our community, we need to have more control and we need to have local funds that our mental health leaders can focus into those gaps.”

If they’re successful, they stand to free up critical resources in health care and the criminal justice system – not to mention the impact on stable employment and families around the Rockford region.

“And, you lower the overall community cost of crisis intervention and response,” says Holcomb.

Addison sees so many challenges among the people who pass through Stepping Stones of Rockford, yet she also sees the little ways people are turning their lives around. Improve the lives of those most in need, she says, and you raise an entire community to new heights.

It’s starting in baby steps, but you have to start somewhere.

“There is help. There is hope,” Addison says. “It sounds so trite, but it’s true. There is such hope right now. I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years, and this is the most hopeful I’ve felt.”