When the first COVID-19 case in the U.S. hit Seattle, it was like someone pressed the pause button on the region. By the governor’s order, life slowed to a crawl as in-person gatherings were canceled and restaurants closed, until the only place to find brisk business was the toilet paper aisle of the supermarket.
That left many people hurting and in need of services from agencies that were struggling to find balance between the urgency of delivering services and the danger of providing them in traditional ways.
Community courts — based in libraries and community centers in Burien, Redmond and Shoreline — were adopted to offer alternatives to incarceration. The courts helped low-level offenders access the resources they needed without building up a criminal history, and did not spend scarce public dollars on jail stints.
The court system also opened resource centers, where community members could meet service providers gathered around folding tables and chairs to help people sign up for food benefits, housing or other needed supports.
With the arrival of the virus, these models had to change, said chief presiding judge Susan Mahoney.
“COVID hit us hard, and the community-based centers with live people, live volunteers and community space outside of the courthouse were shut down and have not reopened,” Mahoney said.
The court system offered one solution: a virtual resource center where community members and client participants can access service providers safely over the phone and through videoconferencing.
With operations suspended, coordinators set about checking in on participants and ensuring they remained engaged with the system. Others began building a new one.
The Virtual Resource Center maintains the ability of community members — be they court-involved or not — to meet with service providers on Tuesdays between 1:30 and 3 p.m. and Wednesdays between 2 and 4 p.m.
People visit kingcounty.gov/VRC for login information through a Zoom video call or voice call, depending on their comfort level or access to the internet. There, they can connect with service providers directly in private “breakout rooms” to access services safely and securely.
The new system comes with some advantages, said Callista Welbaum, the therapeutic courts manager.
“Because VRC is virtual, we’re able to have providers available that we couldn’t have before,” Welbaum said.
That’s because while the majority of programs are not bound to one city or county, service providers’ limited resources and various locations were making it harder for some programs to participate. The virtual option allows as many as 20 providers at a time to engage with people in the VRC.
Digital access is not equal access, though, especially for people with limited cellphone minutes or data plans. According to Pew Research, 96 percent of people living in the United States own a cellphone of some kind, and 81 percent own a smartphone. Public areas for people to access Wi-Fi, such as libraries, are shuttered, which raised concerns about equity and social justice, Mahoney said.
Between the availability of internet hotspots and the saturation of cellphones, it’s been more accessible than court authorities feared, they said, and court participants are still able to attend court dates in person.
Therapeutic courts, like other government-funded services, are facing new challenges now.
The therapeutic court system in King County is funded through the Mental Illness and Drug Dependency (midd) tax, a 0.1 percent sales tax that traditionally generates $136 million for every two-year budget cycle, according to King County.
Sales tax revenues slumped due to the economic shutdown caused by the appearance of the coronavirus, slashing into midd funds. The entire therapeutic court budget was $4.8 million, which encompassed mental health, veterans and community courts.
“That was bad, but they also let us know that it was going to be another $1 million,” Mahoney said.
In the end, the sales tax forecast wasn’t so dire, but further reductions are expected.
“We have to find another funding source or we take a bigger hit in 2021 and 2022,” she said.
But the team hopes to keep the online version of the resource center open. The government loosened rules on many social programs, allowing broader access with fewer requirements for more people, to alleviate the pain of the pandemic. The VRC could be one, too.
Mahoney sees a benefit to coming to the center and being part of a community, but some people can’t take advantage of that. Maintaining a VRC on certain days and an in-person center on others could be a compromise.
“The way we’re thinking about moving forward in the future is a combination,” Welbaum said. “Getting people connected to people in person, especially with disenfranchised populations, is so important, but we want to bring folks the best variety of services.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Oct. 7-13, 2020 issue.