Joshua Lamancusa

Joshua Lamancusa

Lawrence County’s array of mental health services is about to go up a notch.

On Tuesday, the county Salary Board approved the creation of a second co-responder position within the district attorney’s office. The co-responder is dispatched to assist police officers responding to a scene where a mental health issue is involved.

The board — which is comprised of the county controller and commissioners — approved the new position and an annual salary of $50,000 with benefits. The position, according to District Attorney Joshua Lamancusa, will be fully funded by the county’s Mental Health/Developmental Services department, including a one-time amount to pay for necessary equipment.

The district attorney’s office already has one co-responder, but Lamancusa said that she is on call 24/7 and is being overwhelmed by the number of mental health cases being encountered.

“Initially we wanted to create the co-responder position and hire two people,” Lamancusa told the board. “I did not feel comfortable hiring two right off the bat. We wanted to get one out there, make sure the program works and work out the kinks.”

He noted that only two other Pennsylvania counties — Dauphin and Luzerne — have similar programs, but that Lawrence County’s is unique within the commonwealth.

“Their model is a little different from ours,” he explained. “Their model is based upon assigning a mental health advocate to a particular turn or to a particular officer. The problem that we found with that was that the officers get called to a variety of calls, not just mental health calls. A lot of the time, the advocate is being wasted at a burglary call, or criminal trespass or retail theft.

“So what we decided to do was to create a model where they are in the district attorney’s office and they are on call, and any time a police officer anywhere in the county encounters a situation where a mental health advocate is needed, they call the 911 center, and the 911 center dispatches our person directly to the scene.”

It’s an approach, he went on, that not only allows the responding police officer to better deal with the immediate crisis at the scene, but also can get the officer back in service more quickly.

“Once that emergency has been dealt with, and it is a situation where there are mental health issues, that police officer has to take that person to the hospital to be evaluated,” Lamancusa said, noting that the officer then might have to remain at the hospital anywhere from four to six hours while the evaluation is completed. That effectively takes the officer out of a shift, increasing the workload of other officers and decreasing their availability.

“With a co-responder,” he said, “there are people who can take over the case once the police officer gets that person to the hospital, and then they call follow them through the health side.”

But the job doesn’t end there.

“What happens is, police are responding to a scene, and it’s not something where someone is going to be committed, but there is a recommendation that they seek help,” he said. “But there’s no follow-up. There’s no one tracking that case and ensuring they go.

“Our co-responder has a database where we can track every call, every case that we respond to, and we’re following up with those individuals. We’re following up to the point where we are holding their hand, making sure they go to the appointments.”

Commissioner Loretta Spielvogel, a former police officer, not only endorsed the program by being part of a unanimous vote to create the second co-responder position, but also by praising the work that has been done so far.

“Mental health issues are at the forefront of everything,” she said. “To know that we’re doing something that is so innovative … and knowing that the co-responder who is there right now has so embraced this that she actually feels that she’s not making the impact that she needs to – she has no clue (how valuable she has been).

“The chief thing that I think that makes us unique is the follow-up, and I know that she is tracking that. Anybody can be there and make those appointments and say you’re going here, you’re going there. Nine times out of 10 you know what happens. In a crisis situation, yes, we’ll do it, but then after that, forget it. The fact that she is doing that is wonderful.”

The Salary Board also created a second professional appraisal position in the county assessor’s office, with a base salary of $25,000. Commissioner Chairman Morgan Boyd said that a current employee will be moved into the position, so there will be no extra cost to the county.

The board also approved base salaries of $42,794.50 for the deputy human resources director; $38,899.38 for the deputy maintenance director; and $45,000 for the commissioners’ deputy chief clerk.

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