Taken for a Ride: Lack of mental health services costs taxpayers

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DICKINSON, N.D. - Officials in Stark County say they're struggling to deal with the number of mental health cases in the county. Now Law enforcement is picking up the responsibility.

Stark County sheriffs have made prisoner transports for decades, but more and more of those are to mental health facilities. In 2016, Stark County Sheriffs made 115 of these trips. That increased to 144 in 2017 and sheriff Terry Oestreich fears that number will keep going up.

"It takes away from family time for the guys, it stretches us thin,” said Oestreich

In pairs deputies take inmates for treatment. Sheriff Oestreich says these inmates usually aren't dangerous. They're just sick.

"A lot of it is addiction issues whether it be alcohol or drugs,” said Oestreich.

Deputy Jessie Hoff has made dozens of transports.

“The majority of the people that go on these transports are seeking some sort of help or are at least agreeable to the help that's been recommended to them,” said Hoff.

Of the 125 trips that were coded “Transport Mental Health”, 56 went to Bismarck, 42 went to Jamestown, 13 went to Dickinson, 11 to Fargo, 1 to Grand Forks, 1 to Minot and even 1 to Rapid City, South Dakota.

County Commissioner Jay Elkin says vehicle costs added another $80,000 and $100,000.

"It would be nice if we had a facility in Western ND or in West River to address these issues. At least these transport costs could be lessened,” said Elkin.

State and County leaders are looking at refurbishing St. Joseph's hospital in Dickinson. But leaders say it's not as easy as it would seem.

"No one wants to grab a hold of this thing because it's so big and with the cost of upkeep and stuff like that,” said State Senator Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson.

"It's the personnel that are needed as well and trying to attract the right personnel and we're talking about psychiatrists, psychologists, doctors, nurses,” said Elkin.

Leaders are still trying to figure who will take the financial burden.

"The cost should not be borne by just a particular county and there's not a county that could afford those costs alone. State help will be desperately needed, there's no doubt about it,” said Elkin

"At this point, I can't make any definite promises that yes this is going to happen. But are we looking at it? Absolutely,” said Wardner.

Sheriff Oestrich says he hope the money will be spent sooner rather than later. Stark isn’t the only county that lacks mental health services. Forty-eight of North Dakota's 53 counties don't have the amount of mental health workers they need according to the University of North Dakota.