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Q&A: Scott Block, inaugural statewide behavioral health administrator

Scott Block headshot
Courtesy of Scott Block
Scott Block

Scott Block is the inaugural Statewide Behavioral Health Administrator, hired by the Illinois Supreme Court. He took on the role in 2021.

Since then, he’s worked with the state’s Mental Health Task Force to complete some of the work set out in the Action Plan, which is to be a guidebook for all courts in Illinois, including local courts.

More than 70% of prisoners suffer from either a mental health condition or a substance use disorder, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Block talked to WGLT about progress on the action plan, and how counties can learn from it.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

WGLT: The first thing I want to start with is the Mental Health Task Force Action Plan. Tell me what that is.

Block: The action plan was developed by the Illinois Mental Health Task Force to serve our state courts, local courts and justice partners as a guide or a roadmap to helping improve the court response to individuals with mental health and substance use disorders. Within that plan, we have 30 recommendations — 37 recommendations — under eight different strategic initiatives, and they provide opportunities and options for courts. Within that you're looking at such actions as courts convening their stakeholders to develop a cross-system relationship and look for opportunities to improve resources, all the way down to very specific reforms around court processes such as fitness to stand trial in civil mental health proceedings. So it's a very broad roadmap and an opportunity for the courts to use that as a template or guide in their local work.

It's been about a year since this came out in 2022. Can you talk to me about progress that has been made?

There is a great deal of progress made with the courts establishing relationships with our other government partners, such as our executive and legislative branches. We are now included on several of those meetings. And then, from a more substantive standpoint, two of the most emerging issues that we've seen throughout Illinois’ justice and mental health intersection is the need to reform the fitness to stand trial process. This is the process when somebody is deemed to be incapable of assisting themselves in their defense, and there's bona fide doubt. And this includes mental health treatment to help that person become what we deem fit. And there is, as you can imagine, a lot of nuance within that process. And we have been working closely with the Department of Human Services to streamline that process and also looking within our court systems for opportunities to improve. And then the second system we've been really focused on is improving the usage of civil outpatient mental health orders, which would allow individuals to be under civil court supervision while not receiving treatment in the community.

Talk to me about the biggest change — tangible — that you can point to since your role was introduced.

The role stemmed from involvement in a National Judicial Task Force to improve the state court response to mental illness, and one of that task force's recommendations was for all state courts to develop a role similar to mine. When I got started, there were two or three of us around the country and now we number in the teens. So we've started to see, courts recognize that if we have this overrepresentation of individuals in our system that needs specialized care and assistance, that we need a dedicated voice and resource to bridge the system gaps and to be able to improve our processes.

So here in Illinois, within the two years that I've been here the biggest difference is that we are now included as courts in all of our conversations with behavioral health partners. And internally, we've been [able] to bring a behavioral health lens to all of our different divisions, such as in our probation services division and our court services division, and it's really becoming a natural part of our discussions throughout the court system in general.

How does your work trickle down to counties like McLean?

The way the Illinois court system is set up is you have the Supreme Court and then we have 25 trial courts, which are county courts that you're familiar with such as McLean. And many of those courts have what we call treatment or problem-solving courts, which include specialized programs for individuals that are struggling either with mental health and or substance use disorders. And our work provides certification of those courts to ensure that they're operating within fidelity to national and research models. And we also work directly with circuit courts to help them map out community resources and build relationships amongst their behavioral health and justice system providers.

McLean County is really an innovative county in that they have a justice and behavioral health coordinating council in place and they are already talking through opportunities to intervene from the law enforcement aspect all the way through the court and community supervision aspects.

Are there general recommendations at all that you have for counties to use in their courts?

One of the starting points that we recommend is for the courts to use their power and authority as conveners. Meaning that we often say when a judge calls a meeting, people show up. So we've encouraged all of our circuit courts to appoint a judge as a convener of multidisciplinary justice partners and start the discussion about what community resources are needed in that community, what opportunities exist to improve how we all work together to respond to individuals that are justice-involved and need behavioral health services. So we are encouraging every circuit to convene a justice and behavioral health council. And in doing so in my role, I'm available to provide technical assistance and support to those councils, as well. So our first recommendation is just to get everyone in the same room and start talking about how we improve our processes.

What can we expect, as citizens, in the future, from the Mental Health Action Plan, from the task force, or otherwise?

What we are hopeful to provide is certainly multifaceted. One being that we want to improve the judge's ability to respond and work with individuals with mental illness while they're in the courtroom, teaching those soft skills about how to de-escalate certain situations, how to have that cultural competency, so to speak, when they're working with somebody that may be symptomatic. But then from there, we are encouraging new discussions around diversion programs, which would be those opportunities to release or work with low-level nonviolent offenders within that community-based mental health setting as opposed to within the justice or jail setting. So we're hopeful that we'll be able to increase diversion opportunities throughout the state, and in turn, build those relationships with community treatment providers to increase public safety, public health and the outcome for individuals that are within our court systems.

Was there anything else at all that you wanted to add?

I would add that the court is really innovative here in Illinois and taking this approach. And although it's a multi-layered system that requires collaboration and partnership from law enforcement, social services, behavioral health providers, court professionals, and even corrections and probation departments, that it's important that all of our systems work well together, because we all have a piece of the puzzle to accomplish these goals.

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.