Riverside trustees on Feb. 17 made good on a plan that’s been in the works for almost a year, approving a contract with Amita-Presence Behavioral Health (PBH) to provide crisis intervention services for its department of public safety and giving police and paramedics the ability to provide professional help for those experiencing mental health crises 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The agreement with PBH is not a full-blown co-responder model, where crisis workers respond with police to mental health calls, but it does give Riverside the ability to provide crisis workers more quickly.

PBH provides similar services to both Brookfield and North Riverside, and since last May Riverside Public Safety Director Matthew Buckley has been working with Riverside Township Mental Health Board officials to nail down a way for Riverside to provide crisis services.

“I wanted to complete the puzzle and figure out a way to do it,” Buckley said. “The biggest problem was finding funding.”

Brookfield and North Riverside fund PBH’s crisis intervention services through grants from the Proviso Township Mental Health Board. Because Riverside is not part of Proviso Township, it was never included in the package.

With the three departments working hand in hand as charter members of the West Central Consolidated Communications (WC3) emergency dispatch agency, Buckley said it was essential for all three village to be able to provide the same services.

“I thought it was very important to work with our neighbors, so we started putting all of the pieces together,” Buckley said.

Riverside Township Mental Health Board will be splitting the roughly $31,000 cost for PBH’s services for the first year of the agreement. Tim Heilenbach, chairman of the Riverside Township Mental Health Board, said the agency provided $17,000 to the cause.

“The last thing we want is for one of our township partners to be an island,” Heilenbach said. “And, right now, mental health is so important.”

Riverside Township Supervisor Vera Wilt called the partnership with Riverside on the program a “natural” for the mental health board.

“The township is happy to provide funding for that type of service,” Wilt said, adding that the township is also funding crisis intervention training to Riverside, Brookfield and North Riverside police officers.

Buckley said he hopes the township and village can continue to partner to provide mental health crisis services in the future.

“The hope is to have a longstanding relationship with them,” Buckley said. “I truly believe this program is going to be successful. Hopefully, this will be an ongoing partnership. Anything we can do to work together to provide these services is what it’s all about.”

According to the terms of the contract, PBH will provide a case worker who will work onsite 10 hours a week plus access to caseworkers who can respond within an hour at all times.

The services provided by PBH, as spelled out in the contract, include providing access to a crisis line for psychiatric emergencies and support. If assistance is not needed immediately, a case worker will follow up during working hours.

PBH caseworkers will assess and provide initial counseling in both psychiatric and non-psychiatric emergencies and provide short-term counseling services when those are deemed appropriate.

The organization will also do public outreach to Riverside residents to inform them of mental health services available to them and connect them with those services when they are needed.

Riverside Village Manager Jessica Frances said there will be a formal presentation introducing the new program and its services to residents at the village board’s meeting on March 3.

Brookfield Police Chief Michael Kuruvilla, who worked briefly as one of PBH’s caseworkers before being hired as a police officer, described the crisis intervention services as “amazing.”

That village has had a relationship with Presence Behavioral Health for decades, said Kuruvilla.

The crisis workers assigned to each municipality spend 10 hours a week onsite in those towns. In Brookfield that case worker has a work station and, if they are needed while working in the village, can be called upon to respond with police officers.

While it’s not exactly a co-responder model, sometimes that’s the effect, Kuruvilla said.

“We’re not clinicians,” Kuruvilla said of police officers. “When possible we seek to use the agency and the services they provide. Very recently we had a ‘pseudo’ co-responder situation where the case worker came out with us to evaluate an issue. Her expertise in that instance was fantastic. … Our officers didn’t have to get hands-on. She has a gentler presence and once she made a determination, it worked well and we were able to usher that person to an ambulance for evaluation.”

The agreement with PBH follows in the wake of retired Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel who initially emphasized the importance of having access to mental health crisis caseworkers to respond to psychiatric emergencies back in 2020.

Although at the time Weitzel was referring to groundbreaking programs in Denver and Eugene, Oregon, which have well-funded mental health crisis response teams that work parallel and sometimes in partnership with police in emergency situations.

Weitzel at the time called on Illinois lawmakers to create legislation and funding for such teams. Though the request did not result in anything tangible at that level, Buckley took up the cause when he ascended to the top public safety role in Riverside following Weitzel’s retirement last May.

“I felt this was the best fit for Riverside,” Buckley said.