ICYMI: Probation Dept. establishes ‘Connections’ with community
From The Sun-Gazette


From Reggie Ellis in The Sun-Gazette

First-of-its-kind Connections facility brings Probation Department and its community-based partners under one roof to better serve their clients, families and community

VISALIA – The Tulare County Probation Department is tasked with more than just making sure people stay out of trouble, it’s there to help foster connections to their families and community.

The word Connections is now permanently affixed to the wall of their new headquarters in the old K-Mart building on Noble Avenue. The letters are more than a mantra, it’s also the name of the department’s unique facility bringing community partners under one roof to better serve its clients. Probation Chief Michelle Bonwell said it is the first of its kind in Tulare County and probably in the state.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Bonwell, a 27-year veteran of the probation department. “It truly sets itself apart because of the community partner piece.”

Connections houses 13 community-based organizations offering services for mental health, education, vocational training, drug and alcohol recovery and life skills. Partners include Alliant International University, Boys & Girls Clubs of the Sequoias, Central Valley Recovery Services, Inc., Champions Recovery Alternative Programs, Inc., CSET, Family Services of Tulare County, Tulare County Child Welfare Services, Homeless MDT/TulareWorks Outstation, JDT Consultants, Inc., Tulare County Office of Education, Visalia Unified School District, Visalia Youth Services and the Tulare County Workforce Investment Board. Each agency will have staff stationed at the facility from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“This is like a dream come true,” Chair Amy Shuklian told Bonwell during the Dec. 7 meeting of the Board of Supervisors. “This is a ‘Who’s Who’ of community partners and a very strong force indeed.”

From the clients perspective, Bonwell said the facility should help people accessing services to stay in their programs. Instead of parents driving their children to one location for mental health services and then driving themselves to another location for parenting classes, families will be able to go to one place for all of their programs. Those seeking substance abuse or behavioral health won’t be referred to another location where they might be on a waiting list, leaving the person without services for weeks.

“We all knew these barriers existed but there wasn’t a way to streamline services,” Bonwell said.

Once the facility has been running consistently, Bonwell said she would like to extend hours until 8 p.m. on the weekends to offer easier access for those who work during the day.

“It takes a team to fulfill a dream and this will make sure no person gets lost in the shadows,” Supervisor Eddie Valero said about the facility.

The probation department’s connections with local nonprofit providers began after the passing of Assembly Bill 109 in 2011. The law shifted responsibility for non-violent, non-serious, and non-sex offenders from the state to the county, released them early and placed them into probation programs in an effort to reduce the prison population. In order to better help reenter the former inmates into society, probation departments throughout the state partnered with other agencies to help with the transition. Often called Day Reporting Centers, former inmates would check in with the probation department to ensure they were adhering to the terms of their release, but also with nonprofits providing services to help them access resources.

“I appreciate your vision and all of the effort the partners have made to come to the table and provide resources, solutions and assistance,” Supervisor Pete Vander Poel said. “It will all provide so much toward a better life. I look forward to seeing outcomes you will produce.”

Bonwell said her vision for the one-stop center began in 2017 as Tulare County was considering the sale of the former courthouse and its annexes, one of three locations in Visalia where the Probation Department was housed. Bonwell had just been named chief that summer and wanted to centralize its operations but also make it easier for clients to access services from its partners.

“We were busting at the seams and there were barriers to people having to travel back and forth in town to services,” Bonwell said. “We also didn’t want to cost our clients a job because they had to take time off work to access services.”

While the county was going through the process of selling the old courthouse and offices, the Probation Department began looking at the shuttered K-Mart as a new location to meet its current needs and with room to grow with more than 85,000 square feet. Once the purchase of the property was complete in December 2019, the county gutted the building giving Bonwell a clean slate for her vision. Connections takes up about 25,000 square feet and includes eight enclosed training spaces, two semi-private meeting rooms and 24 workstations with printers.

Bonwell said she doesn’t want to stop in Visalia and wants to create a Connections facility for the north and south county as well. Construction on Connections North is already underway in the department’s former youth facility next to the Tulare County Juvenile Court on Avenue 328 near Highway 63. The contract was awarded in summer 2020 and is expected to open in spring or summer 2022. Bonwell has not yet identified a location for a Connections South but said it will be in Porterville where the department’s satellite office is currently located.