Leader Profile: Board Member Susan Schafer

This Familiar Faces Initiative Community Portrait is the seventh in a series highlighting individuals who are championing cross-systems collaboration and data sharing within their jurisdictions to improve outcomes for familiar faces of justice, health and human services systems. This interview was edited for brevity.

Ms. Susan Schafer has served as a Board Member for McLean County, Ill. since 2010. In this role, Board Member Schafer helped to create McLean County’s Mental Health Action Plan and the 2022 Update, which addressed the gaps in services for community members with behavioral health conditions. Her experience in service and making strong connections with community partners enables Board Member Schafer to advocate for familiar faces through data-sharing and health initiatives.

Q: What drew you to the work you are currently doing as a Board Member for McLean County, Ill.?

I had a strong desire to serve my community. Before coming into this role, I was heavily involved in my community through activities with my children, like the youth symphony. I have always had a passion for serving and problem-solving, so I enjoy developing solutions to promote better outcomes in the community.

Q:What are the most pressing issues concerning behavioral health and justice in McLean County and what is the county doing to address these issues?

Our biggest issue is retaining a behavioral health and justice workforce, which seems to be a problem facing many communities right now. Finding and attracting qualified mental health professionals to support behavioral health programs is challenging. Our local institutions of higher education are helping develop the workforce we need. Illinois State University created a pipeline for nursing students, including a new post master’s program Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Certificate (PMHMP) to aid in the lack of psychiatrists, and Heartland Community College has developed a peer program. This work is critical to our county’s ability to build and expand our behavioral health and justice initiatives.

Q: McLean County has an impressive data-sharing system. How does the platform support the county’s programs and initiatives?

Our data system is huge. It’s managed by our county IT office and enables McLean County to share data among our disparate legal systems. Our Integrated Justice Information System (IJIS) collects data from law enforcement officers, prosecutors, public defenders, probation and parole officers and the jail. We also matched IJIS with the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) to analyze the intersections between impacts of the criminal legal system and homelessness. Once we identify the individuals who are regularly cycling between these systems, we can provide targeted assistance.

We are currently working on improving the system so that individuals can be matched across IJIS, HMIS and health care and medical services systems. The update was projected to take 5 to 10 years, but the county has devoted ARPA funds to the project, allowing us to expedite it and update our system in the next few years.

Q: Tell us about some of McLean County’s successes in assisting familiar faces.

In 2019, we worked with CSH (Corporation of Supportive Housing) through the Frequent Users System Engagement (FUSE) program to develop a tool that would match people who have been impacted by the justice system and were also experiencing homelessness to services. Through this work, we reduced shelter days for those experiencing homelessness and reduced emergency department visits. In the 18 months following the start of our FUSE program, we saw a reduction of 51 emergency department visits. By the end of 2020, we had only 1 emergency department visit by a FUSE program participant. In that same time, program participants’ number of contacts with the criminal legal system decreased from 30 to 5. (More information about this FUSE program is available in NACo’s case study on McLean County).

Also, McLean County opened a triage center in 2020. The center operates on a living room model, meaning we offer individuals a safe, calm environment to access when they are experiencing a mental health crisis. A lot of clients self-refer to the triage center, although law enforcement can also bring people into the center as an alternative to hospitalization or a jail booking. Our local crisis call center is also aware of the triage center; enabling them to refer callers experiencing a mental health crisis to the triage center when appropriate.

Q: How are you supporting youth and young people with mental health conditions in your community?

Our county has a robust continuum to support familiar faces, and this has allowed us to turn our attention to preventive efforts that keep people from becoming familiar faces in the first place. We have counselors embedded in nine of our county’s schools to promote the mental wellbeing of students and the principles of violence prevention.

The McLean County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) is also focusing on our ‘emerging adult’ population, encompassing the 18-24 age group. The county is using IJIS to collect and analyze data on individuals who were previously placed in the juvenile detention center and have migrated to adult detention centers. We are specifically looking at how individuals who were flagged with having behavioral health conditions while in the juvenile detention center are operating as adults in terms of their mental health and wellbeing. This data analysis informs us of the gaps in our behavioral health continuum, how to best address individuals’ needs and enables specialized casework through probation.

Q: Can you tell us about McLean County’s preparation for the Lifeline transition to 988?

Our local crisis call center, PATH 211, is the crisis call center for 43 counties in Illinois and has been providing 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline service for decades. PATH 211 is expanding into PATH Inc. and has been designated to provide 24/7 Lifeline service to areas of Illinois not currently covered by a local Lifeline call center – which is 80% of the state. PATH, Inc. will also provide statewide backup service and text and chat.

Q: What advice do you have for elected officials who want to initiate innovations within the justice and mental health field in their county?

First, understanding that everything is not going to happen overnight. It takes a long time to build an integrated data system and to use that data system to connect familiar faces to the resources they need. A crucial part of these initiatives is building relationships with law enforcement, crisis teams and community organizations. It is a continuous effort that requires honest and open dialogue. Having honest conversations with potential partners will allow you to find the strongest and most supportive partners for your county’s initiatives.

Second, models are models and something that works in one county may not always work in another. Someone can look at a model of what a Familiar Faces Initiative county is doing and want to implement it in their county, but it must be adjusted to fit local laws, demographics, resources and populations. Model programs should be a foundation to build upon, rather than a step-by-step guide.

Finally, stakeholders across the county must be engaged and willing to support the initiative. A data-sharing system is not cheap, so building these partner relationships and ensuring that partners stay up to date and supportive of the initiative is essential.


NACo would like to thank Board Member Schafer for speaking with us about McLean County’s efforts. She can be reached at susan@schafer9.com.

This community portrait was created with support from Arnold Ventures as part of Familiar Faces Initiative, a project that strives for better outcomes and lower incarceration rates for individuals who frequently cycle through jails, homeless shelters, emergency departments and other local crisis services.