We often publicly laud a firefighter who rescues someone from a burning building or a police officer who nabs a dangerous criminal. And rightly so! However, we have some Williamson County government employees whose heroic and life-saving acts often go unnoticed. One such group is the Mobile Outreach Team (MOT).
MOT provides emergency and short-term mental health services for patients who are suicidal, homicidal, psychotic or otherwise need immediate psychiatric care. This program operates under the Williamson County Emergency Services Outreach Department.
Annie Burwell, director of MOT, explained that a Mental Health Task Force was formed in the early 2000s in response to public concern about jails overloaded with inmates who were in mental distress and had committed only minor offenses. Others with no apparent other medical needs were taken to emergency rooms where they didn’t receive mental health treatment. Most had no health insurance.
Annie Burwell, Commissioner Cook, and Ife Oyedokun, MOT mental health specialist, preparing to leave for a call within the county.
The Task Force made two important decisions. One was that mental health cases with felonies should be accelerated faster so that mentally ill inmates didn’t linger in jail. The other was to develop a two-year pilot program, MOT, to assist the mentally ill at the time of crisis, when 911 was called.
Ms. Burwell first headed the pilot program and has been its director since it was approved by the Commissioners Court with a maximum staff of 10. However, last year after funding and contract changes, MOT lost two positions. The program was approved to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but with a limited staff and the county’s population growth, Ms. Burwell has had to reduce the hours of service to 8 a.m. - 9 p.m. She often works beyond 5 p.m., and still must handle a director’s duties. Yet her winning smile and warm handshake confirm when she says, “I love my job.”
As a county commissioner, I am familiarizing myself with every county program so that I can evaluate its cost/benefits to the community. I also strongly encourage my two staff members to become familiar with our programs.
Recently, one of them participated in a “Ride Out” with Ms. Burwell. The following is her account:
I met Annie Burwell at her office in Georgetown on the S.E. Inner Loop at 3 p.m. on a warm, Monday afternoon. I signed a form agreeing to complete confidentiality of any person she assisted that day. Wearing jeans and tennis shoes, I followed her out to a white SUV equipped with a barrier between the front and back seats, to protect her and her employees from harm when transporting a patient.
She was answering a call about a 7-year-old boy at an elementary school in a rural area of the county. This young child was currently suicidal and had attempted to injure himself at school. He is diagnosed with behavioral problems and was a victim of child abuse. I stood there as Annie conversed with him at his level and assessed the most appropriate intervention – home, CPS, or a treatment facility. He spoke with great eloquence for a young child, and asked her to choose the treatment facility. He said if he went back home he would die.
Annie next spoke in a separate room to his family guardian. Annie conducted herself not only professionally, but treated the person with respect and dignity. The guardian consented to treatment for the child, and Annie began making phone calls to numerous places. A CPS social worker arrived soon at the school.
It was a tense 15 minutes or so, trying to get a treatment center that had a bed and accepted such a young child. Finally, a call came that he could be placed for a few days at a facility. Other calls and discussions centered on permanent placement in a children’s home. When Annie had secured the placement, she shook hands with the child’s guardian, and stopped by the room where the boy was with the school counselor. She told him he was going to a facility. The boy asked if it was like the former one he had been admitted to, and she replied it was very much like it. He thanked her.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Last year, 58,664 children were victims of abuse or neglect in Texas. More than 200 children died from abuse or neglect. This data is collected by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
We walked out of the school, and as we drove back to Georgetown, I expressed my amazement at how professional she is. She quickly assessed the situation and acted swiftly but cautiously. I asked her how she coped with so many sad cases. Besides agreeing that she is resilient, she added that being in the outdoors with her horses helps a lot. It’s her therapy.
Then I asked if she is ever afraid for herself. She said, “If a situation starts becoming violent, we are trained to get away and call for backup. But I’m never afraid for myself. My fear is that I will return a child to a home where he will be hurt or killed or that an adolescent or an adult will complete suicide.”
Annie and her team don’t carry weapons. She explained that carrying a taser or weapon runs counter to what they’re trying to do: help people. And she further said that the survival rate of patients contemplating suicide is 97 percent when a MOT member, together with a Crisis Intervention Team deputy, respond to a 9-1-1 call for help. The Crisis Intervention Team members are licensed peace officers with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office and trained in mental health and crisis intervention.
According to the 2017-19 Community Health Improvement Plan by the Williamson County and Cities Health District, suicide rates have increased 34.8 percent since 2005 in the county, from 8.9 per 100,00 in 2005-09 to 12 per 100,000 in the 2009-13 period.
As we got closer to Georgetown and the clock closer to 5 p.m., another call came in about a young woman with a long jail record and history of severe mental health problems needing help. Annie invited me along, but I declined. I wasn’t as resilient and needed to decompress and pray for that boy.
Undoubtedly, the work that Ms. Burwell and her team perform almost daily definitely helps prevent or stop child abuse and neglect.
Among our adult population, not only did MOT reduce suicide and mental health suffering, MOT’s community outreach made it possible for Williamson County to achieve $723,175 in diversion savings in 2016. Every time a misdemeanor offender was referred to MOT instead of being incarcerated, the Williamson County jail averaged a savings of $1,552 per diversion. That same year, hospitals in Williamson County averaged a savings of $3,700 per diversion for each uninsured individual who received MOT assistance instead of being admitted.
I commend and thank this dedicated and highly skilled team of men and women who improve the living conditions of Williamson County residents daily.
Commissioner Terry Cook went on a “Ride Out” with Annie Burwell and helped recover a bag of medications that included narcotics from a mental health patient who dropped them in the woods near the railroad tracks just southeast of downtown Round Rock. The patient couldn’t remember the location of the bag or the other belongings shown in the picture.
For immediate assistance with a mental health crisis, you can contact the Williamson County Dispatch line at 512-864-8277 or 911 and request to speak with MOT.