Judge Karen Quinlan Valvo, 15th Judicial District Court

The Honorable Karen Quinlan Valvo, a judge on the 15th Judicial District Court, will be the guest speaker at NAMI WC’s Annual Meeting, which will be held via Zoom on Saturday, March 27, from 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM. Registration is required (www.namiwc.org).

Judge Valvo was chosen to be the guest speaker at this meeting because she presides over the specialized Mental Health Treatment Court and Veterans Treatment Court dockets. We believe our membership will be very interested in learning about diversion from the traditional prison system to the treatment court, how the process works, the plans for the future, and the ways in which NAMI WC members can support the program.

As a prelude to Judge Valvo’s participation in the annual meeting, Cathy Hearn, a volunteer member of our newsletter team since 2017, interviewed the judge via Zoom recently. The following is a summary of that interview. The interview transcript has been edited for clarity and flow.

Cathy Hearn: Good evening.

Judge Valvo: Hello, how are you?

Cathy Hearn: Very well, thank you, how are you doing?

Judge Valvo: Good, thanks.

Cathy Hearn: Thanks so much for making time for this interview. I personally appreciate it, and I know the NAMI WC members appreciate it as well.

Judge Valvo: Well, good. I hope it’s helpful.

Cathy Hearn: It sounds like you’ve been in the area for a really long time.

Judge Valvo: Yes, for over 40 years. I moved here from Buffalo, New York, when I was 21.

Cathy Hearn: That’s amazing! Well, let’s move on to my first question. I’d like to learn more about you as a person as well as your professional philosophy, in any order.

Judge Valvo: Well, I worked for a law firm when I was 18 and 19 as kind of a legal assistant, and then I got married. I had a two-year college degree at that time. The attorneys I was working for were encouraging me to get my 4-year degree and my law degree, but my husband and I decided that we wanted to have our family. I supported him in his career, and we had four children fairly close together. I stayed home with them for about 15 years.

I finished my undergraduate work at Eastern Michigan University. I have a degree in public law and government from Eastern and was accepted at the University of Toledo College of Law, where I was awarded a scholarship for my tuition. I finished law school in 1997 when I was 43 years old and then started practice in Washtenaw County in different areas of law.

One of the areas that developed pretty strongly for me was family law. I began to notice how families often had substance use issues or mental health issues as part of the difficulty they were having maintaining their family lives. And so, in 2016 there was an opening on the 15th District Court bench in the city of Ann Arbor. When someone resigns in the middle of their term, the governor has the opportunity to appoint their replacement. I applied and was very honored and thrilled when Governor Snyder chose to appoint me to fill that seat. I ran to retain that seat at the next election and was just re-elected this past November to a full six-year term.

My predecessor had just started a Veterans Treatment Court and a Mental Health Treatment Court. They were up and running and just starting to develop, so I was able to step into his shoes and continue building. I was excited about those treatment courts because they fit into the things I’d already been learning about people and why they may have challenges with having their life be as healthy and productive as they want it to be.

Personally, I have four children and two grandchildren, and I live a pretty quiet life when I’m not at work. I like to take long walks, I like to read, and I like to garden and spend time with my family – I have six brothers and sisters. I really don’t do any of those big exciting flashy things. I just relax and enjoy myself when I’m not at work.

Cathy Hearn: Let’s speak a little more about the Mental Health Treatment Court. A lot of our NAMI community members are really passionate about jail diversion efforts. I think a lot of members have heard about this court, but could you explain a little more about how it works and where it fits into the system?

Judge Valvo: I’m happy to. Actually, the criminal justice system is in a bit of transition, so I could give you some background about this. When I first became a judge, we pretty much had a system where if someone is accused of committing a crime, they obviously are innocent until proven guilty, and so they can either have a jury trial or a bench trial with only a judge presiding who would make a decision after listening to the evidence. If they are found guilty of the crime or if they don’t ask for a trial and decide to plead guilty to a crime, the next step is for the judge to sentence the person to the appropriate consequence for the crime that they’ve committed.

The 15th District Court where I sit covers misdemeanor crimes, so for most cases there is a maximum possibility of one year in jail, plus fines and costs. Some crimes have 93-day or 90-day limits. But we don’t send people to prison from the district court. In order for the court to decide on the appropriate sentence, the defendant meets with a probation officer who asks questions about their background – their education, physical health, mental health, finances. The probation officer thinks about why the defendant committed the crime, and then puts together a report for the judge to review as well as sentencing recommendations. Typically, it would include some fines and costs and community service, and perhaps some type of education. For instance, if it was a theft, the person might have to go to a class to develop their awareness about the impact of stealing from other people. And they would report to the probation officer monthly. As long as they did what they were supposed to do, the judge would never see them again. At the end of their probation, the judge would sign an order to discharge them from probation and that would be all.

So, the criminal justice system is changing. A new set of laws were signed at the end of last year requiring judges to reconsider how probation is being used and how sentences are being handed down for many crimes. The presumption is going to be that we do not send people to jail for most crimes that are misdemeanors and that we take time to do a very individually tailored probation plan that would assist that person. That ties in nicely with what we’re doing with the problem-solving courts and the treatment courts, so it’s a pretty exciting time right now.

If I have a person in front of me who pleads guilty to a non-violent misdemeanor, and they say they’re interested in getting help for their mental health issues, we have an entire team. It’s not just the judge who works with the person. I lead the team, and I’m assisted by a coordinator who takes care of all the practical details such as scheduling and reporting. The coordinator can help the person with a lot of paperwork details.

We have a full-time probation officer who also works with people who are interested in coming into the mental health court to have their probation plan developed by this professional team. He’s a social worker, so he does the initial screening to help the person understand what the Mental Health Treatment Court is about. If after talking to the probation officer they’re still interested in being in the  Court, they will have a mental health evaluation provided by Washtenaw County’s Community Mental Health (CMH). CMH has a liaison to our Court who interfaces with our Court all the time that they are doing the assessment. If the person has a diagnosable mental illness that is serious enough to need treatment and was likely to have led to the criminal behavior they were engaged in, then the team makes an agreement to have them come in and serve their probation under the supervision of the mental health court team.

The team consists of the probation officer; a CMH representative, therapist, psychiatrist, and caseworker; and a peer support person, all of whom work with us through the liaison person to be available to the defendant. We also have someone from Dawn Farms who comes to our team every week, because many people are self-medicating or have substance addictions as well as mental health issues, and so we try to work holistically with both of these issues. A representative from the Delonis Center also sits on our team. And obviously, NAMI participates with us. We have a community engagement officer in our police department who gets to know all of the people in our court and provides advice about what’s happening in the community, or what people might need to notice. And the Washtenaw Intermediate School District sends a representative for people who have educational gaps.

That’s pretty much the core team that we have. The treatment team professionals do the analysis and make recommendations about the treatment that needs to be provided, and then the different team members each work in their own areas of expertise. If someone needs job skills, we find a place for them to develop job skills to fill their educational gap. We work through CMH and Packard Health if there are physical health issues. Some people stay in the shelter for a while, if they’re already homeless, while we try to find stable housing. And then their probation requirements will look very different.

For somebody who is going through treatment court probation, they’ll meet once a week with the probation officer to see if the treatment plan is working for them the way everybody hoped, and to make sure that they’re accountable for the things they’ve agreed to do. Every other week, we have an afternoon in court where we talk. I’ve talked to each person about how their life is going, what their plans are, what they’re happy about, what they’re disappointed in, whether they’re feeling that they’re getting the support they need.

If someone is struggling, the treatment team will re-evaluate whatever treatment has been recommended to see if it needs to be changed, to see if they’ve been given too much to do, or not enough to do, or if they need a different kind of treatment, or perhaps they might not be as faithful with medication as we had hoped, and they might need more encouragement.

We give a lot of incentives to people who are trying hard to work their plan and are successfully working their plan. We’ll give rewards and applaud people when they tell us how well they’re doing. Anybody who has done everything they were supposed to do in the last two weeks is a Star in the docket. Their name is placed in a drawing for a $25 gift card. After we speak to all the Stars in the docket, everybody who’s done almost everything they were supposed to do, but maybe missed a key something, would have their names go into the drawing for a $10 gift card. We were able to do a lot more concrete affirmation when we were meeting in person. It’s been a real challenge to have this kind of court when everything’s by Zoom. Some people don’t have video capability, so all we’re hearing is their voice. People used to give each other hugs. We used to be able to have treats in the courtroom.

You know, Pat Root from NAMI WC is fantastic. She would greet everybody at the door, she would give them a hug. If she knew someone was struggling, she’d sit with them during the court hearing. She would encourage them afterwards.

Also, we have people who violate their probation and have to have sanctions. We try to make those graduated sanctions. For example, we will have somebody write an essay to share with the court about why they did what they did that was counterproductive, and what they learned from the mistake they made. Or we have them write a recommitment letter. Sanctions are tailored specifically to the capabilities of each person, their challenges and why it’s challenging. A very last resort for us would be to have somebody go to jail for a few days, as a consequence for violating their probation.

People go through four phases of development during the time that they’re with the Court. During each phase they have a chance to sit with the probation officer and develop a set of goals and plans that they want to accomplish in their life, and then we try to put the supports in place to allow them to accomplish that. When they have accomplished a certain set of goals within a certain number of days, they do what’s called “phasing up,” and they submit an application. The team reviews it, and if they’re being compliant with their treatment plan, they can “phase up” to the next plan they receive. We have colored stones that have inspirational words engraved on them. They get to pick a stone that’s meaningful to them as a token for phasing up. They also get a certificate celebrating their accomplishment. At the end of probation, they graduate. We used to have a party every time someone graduated, with cakes and cupcakes for everybody in the courtroom, to celebrate that person. We’d do a ceremony and they would get a gift, a card, and a framed certificate. Again, doing that virtually doesn’t feel as heartwarming as it used to when we could do it all in person.

So, the whole goal of the probation is focused on the person and how to help them be as healthy and productive as it’s possible for them to be, given whatever restrictions they have in their physical health and mental health. The goal is to help them leave the court and to be in a stable living situation with improved education or improved job skills, a full- or part-time job, if that’s what they’re capable of doing. The goal is to provide them with the tools to manage their mental health so that they do not see the criminal system again.

We have a 43% success rate, which is defined as somebody who graduates from the Court and does not find themselves back in the criminal justice system for two years after graduation. For a mental health court, that’s a pretty good success rate, and it’s in keeping with the goals for the state.

Cathy Hearn: A question I have is where does the funding come from, because I would imagine that lots of these folks come from situations where they don’t have access to good insurance.

Judge Valvo: It’s all Medicare and Medicaid. If they have their own insurance, that’s fine, but the CMH is funded through Medicaid. The Court is funded with a grant from the State Court administrative office to help us pay for reward supplies, drug and alcohol testing, and the first two months of a stay in a transitional housing environment if that’s needed.

Cathy Hearn: Is that a fairly stable source of funding?

Judge Valvo: Yes. So far, it’s been renewed every year and has been increased a little bit every year to keep up with appropriate costs and the appropriate number of people in the Court.

Cathy Hearn: So that’s funded through the state taxation system?

Judge Valvo: Well, it comes from the state’s judiciary budget, so yes, it comes from state taxes.

Cathy Hearn: I know that you covered your transition through from family law and the connections with your own family life and that you’re interested in that area. I’m wondering if there’s anything else you’d like to add or should we just move on?

Judge Valvo: No, what interested me about being involved in this Court was finding a way to break the cycle of people continually committing minor crimes, being punished, and going back into the community, without having fixed the underlying issue that was driving the behavior in the first place. Then we would see them back again. And so, you know, understanding how that behavior touches every aspect of their lives and their families’ lives when really in their minds, they’re not criminals. They’re just not well and they don’t know how to take care of themselves without intervention.

Cathy Hearn: Do you tend to experience a level of stigma with some of the participants where it may be difficult for them to accept a mental health diagnosis or something similar to that?

Judge Valvo: Yes, the stigma can come from many different places, I think. Just in general in the community, people tend to shy away from people who are obviously mentally ill or behaving badly, committing crimes. There is always the need for more education about the fact that you know it’s an illness that needs to be managed every day for the rest of your life. By the time participants come to the Court, they’re asking to be in the Court and they’re asking for help. It’s a voluntary participation. Nobody can be required to come into this Court. They may be resistant to accepting that they’re going to have to think about it every day and use their tools every day or take medication. They may start to feel like they’ve been stable for a long time, so they can forget about self-care. That’s more of the challenge.

Cathy Hearn: Could you share anything about plans for the Mental Health Treatment Court?

Judge Valvo: It’s here to stay. I think all of the problem-solving courts are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Michigan’s Supreme Court is very supportive and dedicated to increasing and improving services of this nature. The need to be personally present to each other, I think this is something that we’re all hoping can be met in the very end, as soon as the pandemic is under control, but I think we’ll continue to use some hybrid methods of getting together by Zoom. One of the challenges that people had before the pandemic was getting to the courthouse to meet with the Court and be with each other every other week, and to meet with a probation office every week. Many of our participants don’t have cars or driver’s licenses, so it could take a considerable amount of their time to get around by bus. I think it’s very likely that we’ll continue to do some meetings by Zoom just for everybody’s convenience. But we do want to get back to in-person support and in-person contact with each other.

We’re also starting to explore the possibility of opening a track for people who are convicted of non-violent felonies so that they can also have the opportunity to benefit from more intense attention to whatever issues need to be resolved. That would be a big change in Washtenaw County, but it is something that we’re actively discussing right now with judges from the Circuit Court.

We’re particularly fortunate in Washtenaw Count to have the number of community service organizations that we have. We’re very resource rich. I think sometimes we lose track of that, but when I talk to other judges around the state, there’s always this kind of amazement at how much we have here. It’s a generous community.

Cathy Hearn: That is something I’ve been struck with, definitely. It sounds like the decision about whether to open a problem-solving court can be made on a county-by-county level.

Judge Valvo: The first thing you have to have is a judge who’s willing to do the work to start the court and to preside over the court. It’s quite a bit more work than what I would call our routine dockets. You’re meeting people continuously, twice a month, to talk with and try to brainstorm together about what they need to happen for them. And then, the probation officer meets with them once a week for the first six to nine months. (I should have said earlier, we also have a prosecutor and a defense attorney on our team.) So, you need a judge who’s able and willing to spend time developing a team and then applying for the grant to the State Court and going through the training certification process that the Supreme Court has set up for us. We have mandatory trainings every year, the whole team. And then they need the cooperation of other judges on their bench to free up more of their time to do the problem-solving court.

We have about 27 veterans courts in the state of Michigan right now and 83 mental health treatment courts. And then there are also sobriety courts, drug courts, and they’re just starting to have some family-centered treatment courts.

Cathy Hearn: Forgive my lack of familiarity with the kind of decentralization of the US system [Cathy moved here from London in 2016]. As someone who works in education, it’s taken me a few years to get used to it. I guess what I’m wondering about is the levers that would need to be pulled to make it possible for this kind of court in the first place.

Judge Valvo: Well, you first have to have a local judge who wants to do it, as I’ve described. The judge then applies to the State Court administrative office for the funding. The administrative staff works with the judge to make sure they have all the right pieces. There are certain parameters we have to follow for reporting drug and alcohol tests back to the Supreme Court to make sure people are really doing their jobs.

Cathy Hearn: So this could be done in any state, but it does help to have a Supreme Court…

Judge Valvo: …that’s willing to allocate the budget. These treatment courts are starting all over the country, and I’ve taken training from some of them. The funding mechanism in each state might be different, but it’s a pretty widely accepted form of probation across the whole country.

Cathy Hearn: What can our members be doing to help support the treatment court?

Judge Valvo: When we were meeting in person, we would have three to four people from NAMI in the courtroom at very docket. They’d be available to talk to people informally and casually get to know people, encourage people. NAMI also provides the peer-to-peer classes. Participants from our Court could go through those classes while they were on probation. If they do that, I give them credit toward their fines and costs as an incentive and a reward for doing something extra that wasn’t ordered. Being available to be peers for people is a big way people can be supportive. It’s not a mom or dad, it’s just a friend who’s available, maybe for phone calls or to provide a ride once in a while.

And I think another big way to help is the education component, educating the Community about mental illness and what it means to live a productive life with a mental illness, helping to drive down the stigma.

Cathy Hearn: The importance of peer support is reminding me of the Alcoholics Anonymous model.

Judge Valvo: Yes, a little. We have a similar thing in the Veterans Court, but we call them mentors. Every person in the Veterans Treatment Court follows the basic structure that I just talked about, with phases and voluntarily coming in. They have to have a diagnosed mental illness or service-related trauma or substance use issue. All of their services are provided centrally through the Veterans Administration, so we have one person who’s our liaison and will place people into education, housing, or job skills. It’s all one person who triages for them and is part of the team. The mentor group is run by an associate professor at the University who is in the education school and is a veteran. Veterans who have not been committing crimes will volunteer to mentor someone in our court for the whole time that person is on probation. They may get together once or twice a week to go out for coffee or lunch. They may play golf together or go to a ball game or a movie. They may have a sober game night with other friends of the mentor so the person is developing a healthy supportive social network. They’re all veterans, so they have their service in common, and that’s what establishes the common bond. That’s been very effective for our veterans. I would like to see more of it for people in the mental health court.

Cathy Hearn: This next question, I will understand if you need to bow out. I was wondering if you were able to share any anecdotes from your time serving on the Mental Health Treatment Court.

Judge Valvo: I want to be careful about it because even if I use a composite of three or four different people, someone is likely to think I am talking about them. I can tell you in general terms that it’s been exciting to see women who were being trafficked setting good boundaries and continuing to live healthy lives after they leave the Court because they have found the courage or the strength to break away from the abusive relationships that were keeping them trapped in that cycle. They’ve gotten meaningful work to do that allows them to support themselves without engaging in that risky behavior, and they are staying away from drugs. It’s been exciting to see some people become very stable and very healthy and give back as volunteer workers by becoming involved in support networks that are connected to the Court. It’s exciting to see people’s lives turn around and see them become better parents, because now they’re stable and they’re thinking more clearly.

Cathy Hearn: We’ve covered my next question in some aspects, but I wanted to give you the opportunity to speak to this separately. Are there ways that your involvement in the Mental Health Treatment Court has affected your work on the District Court or the Veterans Treatment Court?

Judge Valvo: Well, I took specialized training from a national veterans organization for how to work with the veterans court and then different specialized training for the mental health court, and I think the training is symbiotic. I find, and have said this publicly, that working with the veterans court is easier in a way because all of the services are provided in one place, and it’s right down the street from the courthouse.

Any time I have a conversation with anybody who provides services, I encourage a clearinghouse for all of these services – one place where we can go and say this person needs these five things. One person could manage those services for our participants so they’re not running around all over town, so to speak.

It’s been exciting to see people turn their lives around. Sometimes people kick and scream all the way to the end of the goal line, and then they come back at the end and say I was hating you while you were making me do it, I didn’t want to do it, you didn’t give up on me, thank you for making me do it, and so on.

Cathy Hearn: It does feel like criminal justice has gotten an increasing amount of attention in the last five or so years. It sounds like a really exciting time to be in the midst of it. I’m wondering if there’s anything else you’d like to add before we finish this interview?

Judge Valvo: I think if I say anymore, I won’t have anything to say on March 27!

Cathy Hearn: Right! Well, I really appreciate your making the time for this interview.

Judge Valvo: Well, thank you. I enjoyed meeting you

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