Adding New Expertise Sheriff's Office Gets Mental Health Expert

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Byline: Beth Reese Cravey, County Line staff writer

Janet Smith Fox has been on the job little more than a week -- in a position that never existed before -- but she already has a full plate of assignments.

And it's heady stuff, dealing with the mental health of law enforcement personnel, the people they encounter while on police calls and the people they take to jail.

"It sounds like a great challenge," Fox said. "I can only do one thing at a time, but I'm used to keeping a lot of balls in the air."

Fox, a licensed mental health counselor, has joined the Clay County Sheriff's Office as its mental health expert. She will work on a variety of issues, including reviewing and updating existing programs the agency has for employment screening and inmate mental health. Also, she will oversee programs that teach law enforcement personnel how to handle job-related stress and to deal with mentally ill people they encounter in the community.

The need for mental health expertise at the sheriff's office has grown as the agency and Clay County itself has grown, said Sheriff Scott Lancaster. That's what prompted him to create the position and hire Fox, who he knew in her previous capacity as clinical director at the Clay County Behavioral Health Center in Middleburg.

"There is issue after issue after issue . . . dealing with mental health," he said. "For agencies of our size, we are probably one of the first [to have a mental health staffer], but larger departments have department psychologists, industrial psychologists . . . This is cutting-edge stuff."

The position comes with a $65,000 annual salary and is part of the sheriff's top management team.

Based on the sheriff's priorities, Fox said the first assignment she will tackle will be pre- and post-employment personnel screening, which includes psychological testing that Lancaster said he wants to make more "in depth." Such screening can prevent the hiring of people who may engage in unprofessional or inappropriate conduct on the job or be unable to handle the day-to-day stress of being in law enforcement, he said.

"This is a real big issue to me . . . We are in a very, very stressful profession," Lancaster said. "Three times as many police officers take their own lives as are killed in the line of duty. Triple it again for family members of people in this business."

There also are high rates of divorce and alcoholism among law enforcement personnel.

"We deal with people in crisis constantly. It takes a tremendous toll," he said.

Although Fox will not do one-on-one counseling with sheriff's office employees -- a contract provider currently does that -- she will review training programs that help them recognize and handle stress. And she will work to increase awareness among the sheriff's ranks about the services that are available to help them. …