Latina Douglas never fit in as a kid. She was bigger than most girls her age and her classmates teased her. After being chased home and having her glasses broken, her uncle encouraged Douglas to push back. So she went to school and started the fights.
“As if to say, ‘Well, bring it on.’ You know, I had that mentality,” Douglas said. “‘Let’s do this.’ So the school finally called my mom and told my mom I couldn’t come back to school, that I had to go Englewood Mental Health.”
A doctor there told Douglas she was mentally handicapped. Later she found out she has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. She tried smoking marijuana, which she liked. Then around age twelve, she tried drinking, and she liked that too.
“Then after the alcohol I started freebasing,” Douglas said. “And then after I started freebasing I started using crack cocaine. And I started making a lot of unwise decisions ‘cause by that time I thought I was grown.”
The next three decades were a blur of petty crimes and prostitution, drug use and dozens of arrests. A week before her 42nd birthday, Douglas was arrested again. But this time, the arrest became a turning point.
There are roughly 10,000 people locked up in Cook County’s jail, at any one time. About a third of them have some form of mental illness, according to a spokesman in the Sheriff's Office.
In 2004, the county started a program called Mental Health Court and went looking for volunteers in the jail to take part. Douglas agreed to it.
The name Mental Health Court is a little misleading. It’s not like a traditional court. The idea is to identify people with severe mental health issues, and help them find housing, transportation and get into drug treatment--to help them stay out of jail. In return, the people who are selected have to check in with a judge every few weeks, whether things are good or bad.
When Latina Douglas was still locked up, a case manager named Pam Ewing came to see her. Ewing works with the non-profit social service agency TASC. She says the first time she saw Latina, she looked like an injured animal. “They show those pictures on TV of the dogs and their eyes. The way they look. And – you know - it was almost like she was someone who was in the jail, and like in a cage, injured, hurt, sad. She probably couldn’t even believe what I was telling her.”
Douglas recalls that same day. “She said, ‘Are you Latina Douglas?’ And I looked at her – cause I was used to people being cruel to me. And I said ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and she said, ‘We’ve come to help you.’ And I looked, I said – ‘ Me?’ And she said, ‘Yes, ma’am. You.’ And she always say, ‘Latina. We just want you to be stable.’ I didn’t know what she was talking about. Being stable? My mind was saying a horse stable. Right? ‘Cause I’m different in here a little bit, right?”
With Ewing’s help, Douglas got into a drug treatment program in the south suburbs, and then into a recovery home. That might sound straightforward, but a whole team of court staff helped think through the plan. There were state’s attorneys, public defenders, judges and probation officers--all focused on this one woman and getting her stable.
At times, Douglas was difficult. She used drugs again, even after she swore them off. And she lied. Ewing remembers the time Douglas wanted to spend the night with a new boyfriend. “I said, ‘Well, Latina. Give me the man’s number. I want to call him myself so that I can verify what his intentions are with you for the weekend, where you’re going.’ I talked to the person she was going to be with.’ I called that person and guess what that person says, ‘Who?!’ So I said, ‘Latina, you can’t go out.’”
Having Ewing there was crucial. If Douglas went missing for a few hours or days, Ewing inevitably got a call to come pick her up.
The mental health court program officially lasts two years. Clients go before the judge every few weeks at first, then every few months after they’ve proven themselves. And in that time Ewing helped Douglas find her footing. She lives alone now, in an apartment she takes care of herself. She goes to church and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and she’s got a goal: She wants to be a school crossing guard.
If the success of the Mental Health Court seems to good to be true, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says, actually, it is. Dart is in charge of the jail. And he says judges and the Mental Health Court are well intentioned, but, “do they ever sit there and say to you, ‘Hey and by the way, our Mental Health Court, the number of people on their caseload for a year is about 200 people and that on any given day there are about 2,000-3,000 of them in the jail?’ ”
From 2004, when Latina Douglas began, and over the next ten years, fewer than 800 people were admitted to Mental Health Court. And not even half of them finished the program.
Court officials say they’re trying to get as many people into the court as possible -- but they insist that not everybody's a good candidate for Mental Health Court, and that it can't be the only tool to deal with mental illness in the court system.
I asked Douglas what she thought about the small number of people who are able to get into the special court and got the intense support she received. She told me the court’s has to start somewhere.
It hasn’t been an absolutely straight line for Douglas. She had one run-in with the law since she finished the court program, but she was able to resolve it on her own. She’s been sober now for almost a decade. And any time there’s a Mental Health Court graduation she tells me she goes there and sings: “I been through the storm and rain, but I maaaade it. I had a lot of disappointments you see, but Jesus gave me the victory. Hallelujah! Thank you, Jeeeesus, I maaaaaade it.”
It's not magic that stabilized Latina Douglas. It was her attitude - a willingness to change - and a court that paid attention to her unique needs.
Cook County opened its eighth mental health court earlier this year , at the Bridgeview Courthouse.
Bill Healy is an independent producer in Chicago. Follow him @chicagoan.
This story was produced in collaboration with Northwestern University’s Social Justice News Nexus Fellowship. Rachel White, Kari Lydersen and Eric Cortellessa contributed to this report.