She stood on the corner of 22nd Street and St. Mary’s Avenue, just two blocks from the Omaha Children’s Museum, and contemplated stepping in front of the truck coming toward her.

What led Michaelle Vega-Hernandez to the curb’s edge that day in March 2014? Born in Omaha and raised in Denver, she had been a bright, energetic student. In the early 1990s, not long into college, she scored an internship at Walt Disney World, where she paraded around the park dressed at times as Chip, Dale and Winnie the Pooh.

It was there, at the happiest place on earth, where Vega-Hernandez, 24 at the time, first experienced what was diagnosed as clinical depression.

Fast forward six years. Vega-Hernandez had moved to Omaha after losing her son in childbirth. She came here hoping to slow life down. Instead, she ended up on Park Avenue near Leavenworth, notorious in the early 2000s for drugs and prostitution. There, she was arrested time after time for minor offenses, often spending time in jail, as her addictions surged and her mental health deteriorated.

Mental health experts and law enforcement officials say her story from that time betrays a troubling trend: Local jails have become holding cells for people in crisis.

“We have criminalized mental health,” said Dan Hoins, Sarpy County administrator. “They’re sitting in our jail. We have to fix that.”

Sarpy County is in the early stages of creating a short-term mental health crisis center to help people with experiences similar to Vega-Hernandez’s.

Early plans have called for a $13 million, 22,000- to 25,000-square-foot facility that would be available to all Sarpy County law enforcement agencies, as well as Cass, Dodge, Douglas and Washington Counties. Many of the specifics, including number of beds and how the center will be funded, have yet to be finalized.

The facility, planned to be built near the intersection of 25th Street and Highway 370 in Bellevue, has been billed as a way to relieve the overcrowded jail and provide a safe, specialized center where people can be stabilized, evaluated and either released or transferred to a long-term inpatient facility.

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An average of 28 percent of the Sarpy County Jail’s inmates at any given time have a diagnosed serious mental illness, according to data provided by Sarpy County Chief Deputy Greg London.

Those people remain in jail for a longer amount of time: Between July and December, inmates with mental health conditions remained incarcerated an average of five days longer than those without mental health concerns, even when their alleged crimes were similar.

London said that in his opinion, that discrepancy arises because people with a mental health condition often lack the family support and financial means to get out of jail sooner. “No one is willing to champion their cause and bond them out,” he said.

The Douglas County Jail has reported similar numbers. From February to September 2017, researchers at the University of Nebraska at Omaha found that 34 percent of inmates had an acute-level mental illness, 27 percent screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder and 29 percent had a substance abuse disorder.

The Sarpy County Jail, now 30 years old, also deals with overcrowding. The jail has 148 beds, but last year, the average daily population was 165.

Some days, the inmate count balloons to near 190.

“Tensions are heightened when you have an overcrowded facility,” London said. Inmates have less space and are forced to sleep in portable beds in the gym. The risk of inmate-on-inmate or inmate-on-staff assaults increases.

London said local officers and first responders, often the first people to encounter someone experiencing a mental health crisis, are handcuffed by their options.

Option No. 1: When an officer responds to a call, the officer can take the person into what’s called emergency protective custody if it’s believed he or she is at risk of self-harm or harming others. If the person is suspected of having committed a crime, he or she will most likely end up in the jail, which isn’t equipped to properly treat patients for mental health problems.

Option No. 2: Take that person to an emergency room.

* * *

Vega-Hernandez spent nearly 15 years in the Park Avenue area, drifting from apartments of boyfriends to homeless shelters to the street. All the while using alcohol and drugs, she pushed to the back of her mind what she knew were serious mental health issues.

“People fall through the cracks,” she said.

During that time, she racked up citation after citation, jail stay after jail stay. Open container. Possession of drug paraphernalia. Trespassing. The kinds of minor offenses that London, the Sarpy chief deputy, said may be brushed to the side if an officer believes someone will be better served by the proposed crisis center.

But for many years, Vega-Hernandez wasn’t offered a way out. And the chaos in her head swelled as her mental health worsened — untreated trauma and mental health conditions from when she was younger developed into bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

When she found herself on the corner of 22nd Street and St. Mary’s Avenue that day, the truck drawing near, she thought, “If no one else cares, why should I?”

* * *

When Sarpy law enforcement officers encounter someone in a mental health crisis who hasn’t committed a crime, they typically drop them off at Midlands Hospital in Papillion or Nebraska Medicine-Bellevue. At that point, the officers leave.

Dr. Scott Madden, medical director of the emergency room at Nebraska Medicine-Bellevue, said that model is frustrating.

“(The emergency room is) kind of the dumping ground for those patients, because unfortunately they have nowhere to go,” Madden said. “And they’re not safe either at home or wherever they’re found.”

Each month, about 40 patients arrive at the Bellevue ER who have mental health complaints or primary substance use disorders. Those who require treatment at an inpatient facility stay at the hospital an average of 15 hours while they wait for an inpatient spot to open up elsewhere, according to a Nebraska Medicine spokesman.

But Madden and county officials said those wait times can extend well beyond 15 hours if area inpatient facilities like Immanuel or Lasting Hope Recovery Center are full.

“There’s so many mental health issues in Sarpy and Douglas (Counties) that these places are always full,” Madden said.

Madden said a telehealth program adopted in September has helped address patients’ mental health concerns faster.

The Bellevue hospital started using telepsych services, which connect patients via video monitor to a psychiatrist or psychologist who can then recommend treatment options, an inpatient facility or a discharge.

* * *

Officials say the short-term crisis center the first of its kind in Nebraska will be the first step to alleviating the burdens of the current system.

“I don’t think there’s anything really like it in the state,” said Patti Jurjevich, regional director of Region 6 Behavioral Healthcare, a partner in the creation of the crisis center.


Sarpy County is in the early stages of planning a short-term mental health crisis center to be built near the intersection of 25th Street and Highway 370 in Bellevue. The facility would be available to law enforcement agencies in Sarpy and surrounding counties.

Emergency room physicians can focus on patients with dire medical needs. The jail won’t be shackled by people who shouldn’t be there. When police encounter someone for the seventh or eighth time who needs specialized care, officers will have somewhere to take him or her. And if people receive treatment sooner, the police may interact with fewer repeat offenders.

The center won’t be a cure-all for the region’s shortcomings, those involved in the mental health care system say. The facility will likely accept patients who elect to receive treatment, so it won’t be equipped to handle people who are especially violent or who cannot or will not agree to treatment.

Madden, the emergency room physician, said the Omaha area probably needs three or four more such crisis centers.

More steps to address mental health in the region are in the works. Sgt. Rob Hillabrand, mental health liaison between the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office and the county government, said the Sheriff’s Office is looking at establishing a special mental health unit, similar to ones employed in large metro areas like Los Angeles, Dallas and Phoenix, that would aid street officers in dealing with those in crisis.

The county is exploring how it can fund a new jail three times the size of the current one. It would likely have programming and space to better treat inmates who need mental health services.

* * *

Michaelle Vega-Hernandez turned away from the street that day, away from the truck as it rumbled by and away from her old life. She says God pulled her back — she realized she needed to get on the right path or her lifestyle would consume her.

The following morning, her birthday, she went to the Siena-Francis House. She spent 10 months going through rehabilitation services, many of which she said she didn’t know were available to her while she was on the street.

What motivated her, she said, was her goal of working with people in crisis. People like her.

Today, Vega-Hernandez works as a certified peer support specialist at the Douglas County Community Mental Health Center, where she helps people navigate their own journey to recovery.

She understands the stigmas attached to mental health and addiction. She sees up close a system where people wait multiple days to be placed at an inpatient facility.

And she’s encouraged by plans for the new Sarpy County center.

“We really need a lot more mental health facilities,” she said.

In early March, Vega-Hernandez turned 47. On that day, she received a bronze medallion, marking five years of sobriety.

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