Mental health issues, meth dominate AG discussion in Hudson

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HUDSON — St. Croix County law enforcement leaders shared the struggle surrounding emergency mental detentions last week with Wisconsin's top legal authority.

The lengthy process can tie up officers for hours, wrack up overtime costs and exacerbate the already difficult experience for those at the center of the ordeals, officials from different agencies told Attorney General Brad Schimel.

"The system feels broken for law enforcement," New Richmond Police Chief Craig Yehlik told Schimel Friday, Jan. 12, during a roundtable summit at the St. Croix County Government Center.

Emergency detentions and methamphetamine abuse dominated the discussion, which brought together leaders from agencies including Baldwin, Somerset, Hudson, the St. Croix County Sheriff's Office and North Hudson.

And while meth remains problematic statewide, Schimel said after the meeting that he was most struck by St. Croix County's problem with transporting mental detentions across the state.

"Law enforcement is rightfully very frustrated," he said. "It's a fair charge to call the system broken."

Schimel's visit to western Wisconsin — he held a similar roundtable earlier in the day in Pierce County — followed a meth-related summit on Jan. 11 in Eau Claire where the AG's office launched a new public awareness campaign. He cited efforts like that as results from roundtable talks he holds around the state. Schimel said he hopes information gathered around western Wisconsin can lead to a "prevention campaign" surrounding mental health issues.

Yehlik and others made clear to Schimel that it does agencies in western Wisconsin no good to open more beds on the other side of the state.

North Hudson Police Chief Mark Richert said funding issues make local hospitals hesitant to establish such facilities in western Wisconsin. That, Schimel said, is because of reimbursement issues.

But, he noted, law enforcement also isn't getting reimbursed for the cost of transports to the state's Winnebago Mental Health Institute, which he said can exceed $1,000. St. Croix County Sheriff Scott Knudson said his office performed 47 such transports to Winnebago last year.

Schimel later called the issue "a gigantic drain on county and local budgets."

St. Croix County District Attorney Michael Nieskes also alerted Schimel to an emerging issue in St. Croix County that involves hospitals requiring mental health patients brought in by police to change into hospital gowns. That raises a potential strip-search concern, authorities said. Schimel said later that it was the first time he's heard the issue raised in the state.

The attorney general also heard how meth's effects cascade into agencies like the St. Croix County Health and Human Services Department. HHS Director Fred Johnson cited recent data: The number of children removed from homes rose from 45 in September 2017 to 68 in December.

Meth, he said, is the main culprit.

Separation between child and parent can be a matter of months or, in rarer cases, permanent. Schimel said the impact is great on children if even separated for a few months.

"I share your concern," Johnson told him.

And with meth as the leading wedge driving families in those cases apart, Schimel said it signals a shift from the 1990s when the main reason children were removed from homes was because of filthy living conditions.

"It seems we've gone way beyond the dirty-house syndrome," Schimel said.