Imperfect solution: Activists warn that existing social service systems can’t fix problems with policing

Mental health advocate Myra Anderson warns that the social service systems need reform too. PC: Eze Amos Mental health advocate Myra Anderson warns that the social service systems need reform too. PC: Eze Amos

Since the violent arrest of an unhoused man on the Downtown Mall earlier this month, Defund Cville Police—along with numerous other activists and community members—have continued to call for the creation of a local mobile crisis unit, which would respond to emergency calls that the police are not equipped to handle.

Lori Wood, director of emergency and short term stabilization services at Region Ten Community Service Board, has expressed public support for the creation of such a unit, which she says could answer some calls related to mental health or substance abuse.

But radically shifting the city’s budget alone will not bring an end to systemic racism and oppression, specifically within mental health services, warns Black mental health advocate Myra Anderson.

“It’s moving money from one system that has historically and systemically not treated Black people right, [to] another system that has the same legacy,” says Anderson about Region Ten, a public agency—funded by local, state, and federal dollars—providing mental health, intellectual disability, and substance use services to Charlottesville and surrounding counties.

“Region Ten doesn’t need to be the go-to person [for the mobile crisis unit],” says Anderson, a former client who later became a board member and peer support specialist at the agency. “I feel like it’s Black skin…police are going to be on the scene anyway, based on personal biases that people [there] have.”

Former client Quezeann Williams also attests to these biases. At 10 years old, she says she was forced to go to Region Ten without her mother’s consent after she entered foster care, and was put on medications that “never made her feel good” and caused her to gain a lot of weight, among other side effects.

“I feel like because I was Black, what I said to the white people did not matter. It was their words against anything I felt, needed, or wanted,” says Williams, who graduated from Charlottesville High School this year. “I struggle from anxiety due to this being more so trauma than anything…It was one of the worst experiences I ever went through.”

Anderson began receiving services at Region Ten as a child in the ‘90s, and was diagnosed with PTSD and depression. After graduating from college, she says she returned to the agency for adult services, but was inflicted with even more trauma.

“The system caused me to be subjected to everything from cultural incompetency, to racial unawareness…to microaggressions,” she says. “There was a gap in racial empathy. And that has been consistent throughout the time I received services.”

These problems in mental health care systems exist nationwide. Black people, indigenous people, and people of color are more likely to receive poor quality of care and have their services end prematurely, among other disparities, according to the American Counseling Association.

Per federal law, Region Ten cannot comment on individual cases. However, it’s been working for several years to expand its cultural awareness and sensitivity as part of its strategic plan, says community relations coordinator Joanna Jennings.

“[We] offered staff and management the opportunity to attend a local racial and cultural humility training in the fall of 2018 and 2019,” she says. “These two training sessions began a journey for Region Ten that has opened up the conversation of systemic racism at all levels of the agency.”

In 2016, Anderson filed a formal complaint about her treatment with the Charlottesville Human Rights Commission. The complaint made its way up to the Virginia Human Rights Committee, and the following year, it ruled that Region Ten had unlawfully prevented her from receiving services for six years as retaliation for her complaints, slamming the agency with multiple violations.

Region Ten isn’t the only social service provider in Charlottesville that has demonstrated racial bias. An independent 2019 report on the city’s foster care system showed that Black and multiracial children were referred to child welfare services at a higher rate than white children, and that “some racial groups compared to others” experienced “less favorable outcomes” once within the system.

Instead of relying on existing social service institutions, Anderson—alongside local advocacy nonprofit Partner for Mental Health—plans to create a working group of peers, professionals, and other stakeholders from diverse backgrounds “to reimagine mental health without police intervention.”

The group will seek to understand the community’s needs and listen to the stories of “our most marginalized people who have engaged with our police while in mental distress,” she says. It will also study other mobile crisis units around the country and provide recommendations to City Council. The group hopes that starting from scratch will allow the new agency to focus on its work, without having to fight against biases in established institutions.

In recent years, Region Ten has created a team to lead its equity efforts, which plans to provide implicit racial bias training, among other goals and initiatives. It’s also looking to hire and retain more diverse staff.

“Region Ten recognizes that this is a long-term and multi-faceted commitment,” adds Jennings. “We will continue to press forward.”

While Anderson is in support of expanding additional behavioral health services through defunding the police, she believes Region Ten and other existing social service systems need to fix their “implicit biases” before receiving more money. “You can’t throw a band-aid on something that’s more like a gaping wound,” she says.

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Mitchell carr

vi·o·lence /ˈvī(ə)ləns/ noun behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something. This is the third time the non violent arrest of the defiant and drunk man on the mall was described as violent. It is an unfair characterization of the actions of a dedicated police officer. You are attacking a human being here. Please think about that. Secondly, the article itself admits that minorities nationwide receive less adequate mental healthcare, admits the region ten had made changes and is continuing to make changes, and then advocates for denying them funding until they make changes that… Read more »