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Cuyahoga County program guides those with mental health, developmental disabilities through court system

Posted at 8:18 AM, Jun 24, 2024

CLEVELAND — Finding yourself caught up in the criminal justice system can be daunting enough for anyone, but for someone with a developmental disability, it can be truly overwhelming. Stefawn Norman of Cleveland knows that all too well.

“I was having a bad day that day,” said Norman of the day when a run-in with police landed him on the other side of the law, charged with obstruction.

He knew things had to change.

“Basically, because I was getting into things I shouldn't be getting into.”

The fortunate thing for him was that his offense occurred in Cuyahoga County.

“We are the only county in the State of Ohio that provides forensic services for individuals who are currently involved in the criminal justice system,” said Dana Moderick, one of three Forensic Liaison with the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities working with individuals like Stefawn as well as the court to better comprehend the process ahead of them.

“Having a forensic liaison helps, not only individuals feel comfortable in the environment, which can be really scary going through the criminal justice system for anybody who is neurotypical or have a developmental disability and it can be confusing,” she said. “So having somebody who is there to assist with understanding what their charges are, understanding what the proceedings are going to look like, who the people that are there to assist them is really important.”

In 2002, the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, working with the mental health community, created the Mental Health Court Docket model to better represent the MHDD population. The MHDD Court has five judges.

What the forensic liaisons don’t do is get involved in the actual disposition of the case.

“A part of our role is not to try to get an individual off without taking accountability for their actions. Our role is to advocate that their rights are being represented while they are going through the court process,” she said. “So we are not trying to say that our individuals are without guilt as they have committed some of these offenses but that they may have had some contributing circumstances, vulnerability, environmental things, lack of family support, things have that nature.”

They also work with them after the outcome of their case to navigate the prison process whether that’s the case or probation, whatever the resolution, to make sure their road ahead is a positive one. Norman knows it takes two.

“They brought me far but I worked hard to bring myself far too.” He said he wants to work in a restaurant, retail or grocery store, and truly appreciates someone having his back.

“They still want the best for me and that's good,” said Norman. “Ain't nothing wrong with that we all need love somehow.”