KUNM

Turquoise Closure Leaves Roswell Courts Scrambling

Mar 26, 2015

After less than two years serving southeastern New Mexico, a behavioral health provider will shutter its programs on March 31, leaving hundreds without services.

What does this mean for Roswell and its courts, which were ordering offenders into treatment there?

Judge Freddie Romero gives candy bars to the kids who have a good day in Drug Court.
Credit Marisa Demarco / KUNM

Judge Freddie Romero presides over the drug court for juveniles in Chaves County. It’s not what you might imagine. The judge is warm and friendly. The kids who approach the podium with their parents in tow are everyday teenagers—jeans, T shirts, the occasional piercing.

They tell Judge Romero how they’re doing, what they’re struggling with, and they offer up a quote that’s relevant to their life. None of the kids wanted to appear in this story. But one of them tallies 120 days of being drug-free, "which is the entire time that he's been in the program," Romero said. "You started off like a ball of fire, and you're still doing it, so great job. Keep it up."

The room breaks into applause. 

District Court judges in Roswell are facing a problem: They can’t order people to get treatment for mental health and substance abuse when there’s no treatment to be found.

That’s because Turquoise Health and Wellness is closing its doors this month due to financial struggles. It’s a provider that came in from Arizona to take over one of the 15 agencies across New Mexico that had their Medicaid funding frozen by the state in what’s become known as the behavioral health shakeup

So far, no provider is stepping up to fill the void. 

Judge Freddie Romero
Credit Marisa Demarco / KUNM

"My concern when I’ve detained an individual until they have a bed available, is that they will get out, begin using again," Romero said, "and that may actually stop them from being able to enter into the program." 

Romero said sometimes, treatment is a condition of release from incarceration. And with Turquoise closing, people might just have to remain in jail or prison instead.

Judge James Hudson oversees hearings that determine if a defendant is fit to stand trial.

"We do not have the jail diversion program now," he said. "Nor do we have the other services that they relied on—intensive outpatient treatment, psychosocial rehab, anger management, various substance abuse groups. All those sorts of things, they don’t exist."

He said the rapid decline in treatment options actually began in 2013 when Turquoise took over. The number of mental competency hearings more than doubled since then. Hudson formed a group to try to find alternatives to Turquoise. But he said it’s hard not to wish things could be the way they were before Turquoise took over. 

"Ideally, we all know what we want," he said. "Realistically, we can’t have that. That’s extremely frustrating, not only to Judge Romero and I, but to everyone in the community."

Fifth Judicial District Court in Roswell
Credit Marisa Demarco / KUNM

They’ve found treatment options for most of the juvenile drug court cases. But gaps in adult services are still a huge concern. Lore Chamberlin is a social worker who was employed for many years by the agency Turquoise took over. She continued working for Turquoise until June of 2014.  

"We have a lot of adults that are now being arrested and put in hospitals instead of us maintaining them in the community like we were before," she said. " It took years to build to the size it was with the programs that it had. And in a year’s time, that transition has really pretty much cut that all away."

So what about the people who are mid-stride with their court-ordered treatment at Turquoise? Chamberlin said therapists are doing their best to find places for these patients to continue working on their health and sobriety.

"The individual clinicians have done a very nice job," she said. "And I want people to know that’s not Turquoise in Arizona doing that. That is the people that live here that are doing that, that are willing to dig and find and hunt."

Felicia Conde, a Roswell native and Turquoise employee, is one of those people. She runs the support program for juvenile offenders and their families.

"We are a service that is there 24/7 for our families and our youth," she said. "And so we provide day-in and day-out support to them—whatever they’re needing."

Most of the clinicians, psychologists and social workers who worked for Turquoise have left Roswell to find work elsewhere, leaving patients behind.

"I think a lot of people will feel that they’ve been abandoned because it’s another transition," Conde said. "We went through it once, and we got them through it, and we got ourselves through it. And now, there’s no way to get through it."

Conde said she’s going to keep trying to do her job anyway, crossing her fingers that another state program steps in to pay her. 

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Go to publichealthnm.org for a more in-depth look at how services are changing in Chaves County. KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation