Architects of mental health plan see more work ahead

Substantial progress has been made in the five years since McLean County began an overhaul of community mental health, but some of the toughest work lies ahead, according to two McLean County Board members who served as architects for the ambitious Mental Health Action Plan.

A National Institute of Corrections study requested by former county sheriff Mike Emery of the mental health care at the jail proved a tipping point for more detailed scrutiny of not only the care inmates received but how mental health care was delivered outside the detention center.

Board chairman John McIntyre worked with member Susan Schafer to form two committees in 2014 comprised of stakeholders who spent months looking at mental health needs and best practices to deliver them.

The 92-page plan released in May 2015 laid out five priorities for improving mental health care: collaboration between providers, medication and medical management, juvenile services, housing and crisis services. As part of mental health reform, the county board moved forward with a $39 million jail expansion, which includes a mental health unit staffed with counselors.

But treatment within the justice system “goes for naught, as detainees return to unstructured and untreated environments,” the plan concluded.  The board- sponsored report noted that without a better coordinated effort outside the jail to manage crisis calls and divert people from expensive emergency room visits and jail, no progress would be made.

The situation at the jail where inmates cycled in and out of the criminal justice system for lack of care in the community needed to be addressed on a larger scale, said Schafer. “The system wasn’t working. Something had to be done and no one was doing it. I thought, “let’s do it. Let’s get it done.”

The NIC report was an eyeopener for many people, said Schafer. “This was an outside group saying, ‘you’ve got a problem here.’”

Seventy-two people were invited to the first meeting to discuss the research needed for the mental health plan.

For McIntyre, his post-retirement work counseling and coaching high school students provided insight into the struggles families often face with confronted with mental illness.

“It’s a helpless feeling sometimes, if you can’t do much for people,” said McIntyre.

A chairman’s roundtable started by McIntyre brought stakeholders together to talk about gaps in services and solutions to fill them.

“When you get people to the same table, they learn more about each other and what they’re doing.  We brought the social service agencies, first responders and hospitals together and others for those important discussions,” said McIntyre.

Crisis services were expanded as local providers improved their collaboration with each other and law enforcement. A new crisis stabilization center for short-term residential mental health needs opened at Chestnut Health Systems in Bloomington.

The McLean County Board of Health also made major changes to its funding process to better monitor how taxpayer money was spent for community mental health programs.  New funding was allocated to boost counseling programs in schools and address youth suicides in the county.

In March, the county opened the McLean County Triage Center in downtown Bloomington for people experiencing a mental health crisis.  Although only about 20 people have visited the center during the months of the pandemic, the county is confident those numbers will increase in the coming months.

Still to be tackled is the issue of mental health services for children, a challenge facing many communities.

“Services for kids is a high priority item,” said McIntyre.

The county recently had no applicants for funding for an intensive outpatient program for children.  But Schafer and McIntyre said they intend to continue efforts to start a program designed to keep children out of the hospital and help transition them back into school after a hospitalization.

A shortage of psychiatrists for children and adults is also a challenge McLean County shares with many communities.

The mental health reforms in McLean County, like improvements to most community-based services, requires money. A sales tax increase approved by voters in 2016 provides about $4 million annually that is directed towards mental health programs, including the triage center.  About $1.73 million has been budgeted this year for mental health work,

The tax funding has also helped provide housing for five people through the FUSE (Frequent User System Engagement) program. A stable residence is a key factor in helping people reduce hospital visits but convincing some homeless people to accept housing can be challenging.

The benefit of housing for mental ill people goes beyond their well-being, said McIntyre.

“For every person you help, you save $350,000 in services,” said the board chairman.  Those savings, he said, can be channeled into community programs.

Hospitals remain a source of help for people facing mental health challenges.

“I think the coronavirus has presented a challenge for us as a society and has impacted mental health in a negative way,” said Chandler Brooks, nursing supervisor of OSF St. Joseph Medical Center’s emergency department.

The hospital has seen an uptick in behavioral and mental health visits during the pandemic.  The increase includes adolescents who are coming to the emergency room, said Brooks.

Carle BroMenn Medical Center started the year with a seven percent increase in mental health-related visits to the emergency room, said hospital spokeswoman Lynn Hutley, then saw a significant decrease during April and May.

The numbers have gone up since June but remain below 2019, said Hutley.

The inpatient mental health unit at Carle BroMenn “has stayed at near capacity even when most all other hospital services experienced decreases,” said Hutley.

Carle BroMenn will boost its inpatient capacity in the coming weeks when the facility opens its renovated behavioral health services area. Inpatient capacity will move from 13 to 19.



Here’s a link to Short-changed: Unjailing the mentally ill, a documentary I helped produce in 2014 with Pantagraph photo editor David Proeber.  We documented the crisis in McLean County’s mental health services and the work to make things better :












A behind-the-scenes look at the demise of Illinois’ death penalty

The abolition of the death penalty in Illinois was a long, arduous process spanning more than a decade. Former Illinois governor George Ryan took the first and difficult step in 2ooo to halt all executions until a thorough review of every death row case could be conducted. I recently talked with Ryan and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maurice Possley about their new book, Until I could be sure: How I stopped the death penalty in Illinois.  Anyone who believes they know the full story of how and why Ryan emptied out death row in 2003 with commutations of all death sentences, should read Ryan’s book.

Here’s a link to my story and the interview broadcast on WGLT:





Pandemic doesn’t slow progress for mental health center

People forced to stay home during the months-long grip of COVID-19 are facing a second health challenge as anxiety, depression and stress take their toll.

A Bloomington counseling center which serves those with little or no health insurance has expanded its services to include children and minority residents – two groups that often have difficulties finding mental health services.

INtegRIty Counseling has seen its list of active clients increase from 85 before the pandemic hit in March, to more 170 in September.  Like most health care providers, INtegRIty was forced to change its plans for 2020 after the spread of COVID-19 forced the center to close its door to in-person visits.

The goal of expanding to 3,000 appointments in 2020 and reaching out to black and Hispanic residents seemed derailed by the pandemic, according to the center’s founder Luella Mahannah.

The volunteer counselors who staff INtegRIty continued to meet with clients through a new telehealth program. But in June after an electronic records program was put in place, the center opened its doors to those who wanted to meet in person.

“We are still doing telehealth visits but many clients and counselors prefer to meet in person. For some people, it’s more appropriate for them to come in,” said Mahannah, who manages the center with support from her husband, Don.

Despite the limitations of the pandemic, the ambitious goal to expand services moved forward.

The center’s base of 30 volunteers now includes a Spanish-speaking counselor, a translator and four bi-lingual helpers who will work as translators and front desk support.

Cultural sensitivity training will help volunteers understand the needs of minority clients, said Don Mahannah.  A higher number of minority clients have sought help in recent weeks, he said.

“We’re seeing people who went on thinking they would be ok.  What we’ve seen across the country is that people’s worlds are getting smaller and they often have relationship problems. The phones started ringing in June and by July, it just exploded,” said Don.

For Luella, the ability to hire a part-time counselor to work with children, is a major accomplishment as the center marks its sixth anniversary.  Stephanie Hueramo also has a private practice, Trust Without Borders Counseling.

Children with unmet mental health needs have “a double access problem,” said Don.

“There aren’t resources available and they couldn’t afford them if they were available,” he said.

The shortage of counseling and residential mental health care for youth was cited in the McLean County Board’s Mental Health Action Plan, released in 2015.  The lack of affordable, accessible care for children was one of four priorities outlined in the county plan.

Having a licensed counselor for youth has made a difference for families waiting for help, said Don.

“We’ve had calls from parents and grandparents the last few weeks saying they’ve been on waiting lists since March to get services for their children.  We can get them in the next week,” he said.

A parent support group, “How do we teach our kids” is led by parent educator Christie Velella. The group meets through secure video conferencing to help parents with a variety of issues from behavioral issues to the return to school this year.

INtegRIty is seeking financial support from the community to continue the expansion of its services.

The center “is working to raise an additional $25,000 in ongoing support in 2020 to support the expansion,” said Luella.

More information on INtegrITy Counseling is available at the center’s website








Senator Durbin recalls DeWitt County connection

In his recent interview on the Legal Talk Network podcast,  Senator Dick Durbin’s recalled his time as a private attorney and his work defending claims against law enforcement agencies.

One of those claims was filed against former DeWitt County Sheriff Keith Long whose office was the subject of a series of investigative stories published jointly by the Chicago Daily News and The DeWitt County Observer in 1977. A county grand jury indicted Long on more than 30 counts of alleged misconduct but a special prosecutor assigned to the case failed to convince local jurors of any wrongdoing.

I was one of the Observer’s reporters who worked with the Daily News team of Rob Warden and Larry Green, both award-winning journalists. Our collaboration was featured in Time magazine.  Numerous awards followed.

In his interview, Durbin noted his work as the lawyer for an insurance company handling the claim by a former inmate against the sheriff.

The last time I saw Durbin at an event in Springfield, we talked about his connection to the “I am the law” sheriff, a reference to Long’s comment to reporters during an interview for the investigative series.

Durbin’s recent mention of his career defending law enforcement-related claims came during his conversation with podcast co-hosts Jonathan Amarillio and Chastidy Burns about the proposed Justice in Policing Act. The measure approved in the House would establish a national database for use-of-force reports involving police officers. The bill also addresses the qualified immunity provision that keeps most civil claims against officers from moving forward in the courts.

The bill has not been called for a vote in the Senate.

Here’s a link to the podcast:


More proof life on the streets is dangerous

Sad news spread across central Illinois recently with the identification of Todd Ledbetter as the latest homicide victim in Champaign County.

Todd also was the latest homeless person to be killed in Illinois.

I met Todd several years ago when he was living on the streets of Bloomington.  I was not aware he had moved on to Champaign. His behavior attracted media attention when someone covered his favorite bench in downtown Bloomington with a sticky, tar-like substance. Todd rightly surmised the meanness of the act was directed towards him and other homeless people who frequented the area.  The incident generated a community dialogue between downtown business owners and residents who live with the consequences of homelessness and people living on the street.

Anyone who knew Todd will admit he could be argumentative at times, a trait that made him more welcome in some places than others.  He spent time at Abundant Life in Christ Church where Pastor Charles Ahrends extends his generosity and open doors to everyone.

Todd was beaten and robbed by individuals who stole more than money. After his death, Todd’s friends held a memorial service to make sure he was not forgotten. He would have enjoyed the media coverage of their tribute.  May he rest in peace.

Church fire could not extinguish the memories

A fire ripped through the Clinton Assembly of God Church this week, leaving behind decades of special memories in the rubble. Lines of cars, moving like a funeral procession showing respect for a friend, drove slowly past the fire scene as the ash smoldered for hours.  The church was once home to a daycare that helped many working parents stay employed. People recalled the activities they attended there as young church members.

And there were weddings and funerals.

In September 2003, the Assembly of God Church wrapped its arms around the community and the families of three children who lost their lives in a drowning incident at Clinton Lake.  No one who saw the three small, white caskets carrying Christopher Hamm, Austin Brown and Kyleigh Hamm will ever forget their funeral and the large crowd that gathered to escort them to the cemetery.

Churches open their doors in times of great joy and sorrow.  During that awful week in the fall of 2003 and countless other times, the Assembly of God Church has been there for the community and grieving families.

A huge part of the church may have been swallowed by the flames, but the love the church has extended, and the affection held by its members, cannot be extinguished.



Kirk Zimmerman case revisited


Before a McLean County jury acquitted Kirk Zimmerman of murder charges in 2019, residents of the Bloomington-Normal area were captivated by the case against the State Farm staffer accused of killing his ex-wife, Pam Zimmerman.

The case caught the attention of producers with NBC’s Dateline program.  The June 2019 episode on the Bloomington case will be rebroadcast on Friday, May 29, on local NBC affiliates at 9 p.m.

The show included portions of a lengthy interview with the couple’s twin daughters and son — all teens at the time their mother was killed in her east side Bloomington office. Pam Zimmerman’s neighbor and the office manager who were the first to locate her body riddled with multiple gunshot wounds described what they saw for the national audience.

I also was interviewed by Dateline host Keith Morrison for the program known for its focus on true crime. What struck me most about Dateline’s work on the Zimmerman story was the time they invested in learning about the case and the people involved. Courtroom footage from Zimmerman’s trial was available because a Dateline team was at the trial shooting video and taking exhaustive notes.

The interview process differed from the in-and-out style of most journalists.  I was in front of the cameras for most of the afternoon as Morrison, followed by producer Cassandra Marshall, quizzed me about the case. Most of those questions were based on their extensive knowledge of the case rather than written notes.

The second broadcast of the Bloomington case will also be reminder of all that was lost with the death of Pam Zimmerman, a dedicated mother and talented businesswoman who was loved and admired by those who knew her best.  The questions surrounding her death — why someone would want her dead and the likelihood of holding someone accountable for her death– remain unanswered.

If you missed the first run of the Dateline segment on the death of Pam Zimmerman and the long legal process against her former husband, it’s worth tuning in Friday night.


Death by pandemic a new worry for inmates

State prisons are among the places the coronavirus is spreading in our country. With testing happening on a limited basis and the obvious inability to social distance between inmates and staff, the novel virus has a strong foothold in penal institutions. Lawyers for inmates have filed lawsuits challenging the continued incarceration of medically vulnerable, elderly and low-level offenders.

Lawyers for inmates who have pending innocence claims have added a basis for requesting release of their clients: the possibility that an innocent person could die during the pandemic before their claim was resolved.

Here’s a link to the story I recently authored for WGLT on this issue:



How the internet has spread the stories behind wrongful convictions

The list of persons wrongfully convicted in the U.S. continues to grow.  Our criminal justice system is among the best in the world but it is not perfect. Any system run by humans has its share of errors and the justice system is no exception.  The ability of the internet to share information has allowed defendants to bring their stories to the world. A judicial process that mostly takes places before a nearly empty courtroom is now detailed online — complete with supporting documents and testimony. Podcasts, websites and audio recordings from defendants arguing their cases from behind bars all tell the story of those with innocence claims. Criminal justice researchers consider the internet a game changer for many defendants.

I recently wrote a piece for WGLT on how the internet has impacted post-conviction cases.  Here’s a link to the story.  As always, feedback is welcome.

Virus coverage overshadows most news as reporters become essential workers

Over the past two months, coverage of most news has taken a backseat to what’s going on with COVID-19, the novel virus that has claimed thousands of lives across the globe.  News outlets are struggling to keep up with the work of sharing the most updated news with an anxious public.  I recently posted my thoughts on Facebook.  Here’s a link to why support of journalism is so important:


Sex offender registry holds many stories

The names and faces behind the nearly one million women, men and children on the nation’s sex offender registry represent untold stories of shattered lives left behind by the harm suffered by victims and their families as well as those whose crimes are posted for public display.

Women Against Registry is a St. Louis-area group of advocates who have taken on the task of supporting registrants — an unlikely cause in the minds of many people.  Last week I accompanied three members of the group to the Bloomington Police Department as they supported Charles Henderson, an 18-year registrant on the list, in his dispute with police.  His story illustrates the challenges of registrants as they navigate a world of assumptions by people who do not know their story.  To be clear, victims of sex crimes deserve justice and understanding.  But the devastation of such crimes often goes beyond the consequences to victims and their families.

Here’s a link to the story published on WGLT :

Tackling the tough issue of youth violence

The Bloomington-Normal area reported more than 50 incidents of gunfire in 2019.

Teens and young adults were involved in many of those cases.  I recently interviewed local youth minister Andrew Held and McLean County Public Defender Carla Barnes about their work in assessing what’s gone wrong in the lives of these young people.  Both are involved in efforts to move would-be offenders of gun laws to a path away from the criminal justice system.

Here’s a link to WGLT’s Sound Ideas segment:

When women come home

The challenges facing women when they return home from jail and prison are complex and long lasting. An event sponsored recently by the Women’s Justice Initiative explored the reasons women find themselves behind bars and what can be done to help them start over.  Much is known about the differences between incarcerated men and women — nearly all women have suffered some form of sexual or physical abuse –but what can be done to deflect them from the pathway to prison is an ongoing challenge. Work by Deanne Benos and Alyssa Benedict, co-founders of the WJI, has educated players in the criminal justice system, women at risk of going to jail and the public about the root causes of the criminal activity that divides families and cripples a woman’s chance to succeed. Here’s a link to a story I authored for WGLT on the meeting:

Disrupting the pathway to prison

Rica’s story enters new phase with her father’s arrest

The story surrounding 8-year old Rica Rountree’s death continued this week wit the arrest of her father Richard Rountree.  He is charged with child endangerment to failing to protect her from the ongoing abuse he knew was being perpetrated on the child by his girlfriend Cindy Baker.  The arrest followed an emotional rally last week organized by Rica’s mother Ann Rountree, who clutched an urn holding Rica’s ashes as she spoke to supporters. Here’s a link to the story on Richard Rountree’s arrest authored by WGLT Content Editor Ryan Denham:

Richard Rountree arrested

Yet another tragic child death case

Even the most seasoned crime reporters cannot escape the recurring memories of certain autopsy photos and the story that comes along with them.  When the images depict a child — abused and tortured to the point of death– the time between viewing and a lessening impact on the memory can be longer than usual.

Such was the recent case I covered for WGLT involving the January 2019 death of Rica Rountree. A jury convicted Cindy Baker, the girlfriend of the 8-year-old victim’s father, of murder, aggravated battery of a child and child endangerment. A decision is expected shortly on potential charges against the father, Richard Rountree, who is shown on cell phone videos forcing the child to stand on her head as part of the couple’s bizarre and ongoing corporal punishment.

Before the trial, I collaborated with WGLT’s digital content editor Ryan Denham on an investigative piece on how Rica came to be in such a bad and dangerous place that eventually turned deadly. Here are links to the initial story and some of the trial coverage.  Comments welcome.

My interest in the criminal justice system continued….

after my June 2019 retirement from full-time journalism. Through my work as a correspondent with WGLT in Normal I have the opportunity to delve into those stories that make people think about how the system works and in some cases, fails.  The public’s knowledge of the courts and criminal justice system is often limited to what they know about a specific case, perhaps their own.  But beyond the day to day rulings and sentencings is a complex machine which never stops grinding and sifting the intricacies of the legal process.   Even the smallest tweak affects all layers of the legal system from how many people are arrested, who stays in jail and for how long to the size of the nation’s incarceration rate, still at a staggering two million inmates.

On October 23, Dr. David Olson presented a program to the Illinois Probation and Court Services Association on why data is an important tool in the work of probation officers.

Olsen’s news that arrests, crimes rates and the prison population are all down in Illinois seemed to surprise some probation officers in the room. Olson’s point?  When it comes to crime, the public’s perception is that things are getting worse, not better.  He included elected officials among those with that mistaken idea. Here’s a story I wrote for WGLT on the conference and Olson’s insightful research on what’s happening in the criminal justice arena in Illinois:

Failing Rica is a story I co-authored with WGLT’s Digital Content Director Ryan Denham:…/failing-rica-b-n-girls-death-exposes-holes-states-child -protection-system