A model to follow

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Borough nonprofit receives funding to expand reach

Guardian ad Litem Services Executive Director Michael Mackniak and Clinical Director Sara Valentino pose for a picture in Mackniak’s office on Church Street Aug. 9. Melissa’s Project, the signature program of the nonprofit Guardian ad Litem Services, has received an increase in funding from the state to expand the program. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI
Guardian ad Litem Services Executive Director Michael Mackniak and Clinical Director Sara Valentino pose for a picture in Mackniak’s office on Church Street Aug. 9. Melissa’s Project, the signature program of the nonprofit Guardian ad Litem Services, has received an increase in funding from the state to expand the program. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

NAUGATUCK — Guardian ad Litem Services Executive Director Michael Mackniak can look out of a window in his second-floor office at 175 Church St. and see where Melissa’s Project all started — the attic of a home across the way on Meadow Street.

While Melissa’s Project has only moved a short distance from Meadow Street, the project has grown in leaps and bounds from its humble beginnings about 11 years ago.

Melissa’s Project is the signature program of Guardian ad Litem Services, a nonprofit organization that was founded to act as a resource for people who are given, or assume, the task of caring for individuals with mental illness.

Today, the nonprofit organization’s offices take up the entire second floor of the building at 175 Church St. It’s a growth spurt that was aided with an infusion of additional funding from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS).

The project’s funding was more than doubled from $713,000 in the 2012-13 fiscal year to $1.55 million for this and next fiscal year. The increased funding has given Melissa’s Project the necessary resources to expand the number of people it serves from about 120 to roughly 225 people.

“We’re elated that we attained one of our starting goals. I’m happy. There’s a lot of people that need the service, and I’m happy that I can bring it to them,” Mackniak, 43, said about receiving the additional funding.  

Melissa’s Project helps individuals with severe, chronic mental illnesses to live independently in the community. People served by Melissa’s Project enter the program after a probate court judge has appointed a conservator for the individual. A conservator is appointed by the probate court system when a person with mental illness is determined to be incapable of making informed decisions for him or herself and manage their affairs safely in community.

Mackniak said one of the issues with conservatorship, and the treatment of mental illnesses in the community as a whole, is when an individual is in the need of these services there is a lack of people willing, qualified and capable of acting the way a conservator is supposed to act.

That’s where Melissa’s Project steps in with its copyrighted Guardian Model.

“We assist the conservators in looking out for the best interest for persons with mental illness,” said Sara Valentino, 35, the clinical director for Melissa’s Project who has been with Mackniak since the start of the project.

Melissa’s Project acts as a liaison between persons with mental illness under conservatorship and the array of clinical, social and legal services that assist them.

Probate Court Administrator Paul Knierim said in a press release that the role of a conservator, whether a family member, attorney or other party, is to make critical decisions about the conserved person’s care in a way that promotes autonomy and independence. Fulfilling these duties can create anxiety for conservators who want to do the job properly but lack the tools, he said.

“Conservators may not have the specialized training to navigate the services necessary for a person with mental illness to live in a way that maximizes opportunities for recovery and participation in the community,” Knierim said in the release. “Under one umbrella, Melissa’s Project coordinates and manages the conserved person’s access to services and supports, while also operating with knowledge of probate court procedures.”

Valentino described the Guardian Model as “a common-sense, best-practice approach.” She said Melissa’s Project assists people in understanding the system better, and the range of services provided by the system in communicating collaboratively.  

“It’s very basic what we do. It’s almost like we’re a system enhancer,” she said. “We help to make sure the system is functioning on an optimal level.”

Valentino said one aspect that makes Melissa’s Project distinct is its collaboration with the probate court administration and DHMAS.

“I think what’s so unique about our program is we’re a nonprofit, but we’re a collaborative effort between the probate court administration and DMHAS, which are two separate state entities, and they’ve created us to be that kind of collaborating body,” she said.

Mackniak, an attorney, possesses an inside perspective into the world of conservatorship. Prior to founding Melissa’s Project, Mackniak was practicing law. He focused on probate law and got involved with conservatorships.

As his involvement with conservatorships grew, Mackniak said, he realized he wasn’t doing a very good job.

“I’m being reactive to crisis,” Mackniak recalled thinking at the time. “I’m not being proactive in terms of trying to help my conserved people move forward in life.”

Mackniak said it dawned on him that there had to be a better way.

“It should not be that we in the human services field, providers, allow or encourage individuals to simply sit back and be spectators of their life. They’ve got to be active participants in their life and that’s one of our main goals, make sure that they can be active participants.

Mackniak continued, “Instead of putting the onus on the individual on becoming an active participant, we want to put the onus on the systems of care to ensure that they’re including everybody and these systems are living up to what they’re mandated to perform.”

So, Mackniak brought his ideas to former Waterbury Probate Court Judge James Lawlor in 1999. Two years later, Lawlor was appointed state probate court administrator. He and Dr. Ken Marcus, then medical director of DMHAS, got to talking about people who constantly cycle in and out of government systems.

With the help of medical health professionals, a pilot program, headed by Mackniak and Valentino, was started for 15 people that reduced their recidivism. A year later, the program was no longer a pilot one.

One of the people to take part in the pilot program was a young woman named Melissa. She was 18 years old when she began to show the first onset of mental illness. Her condition progressed rapidly and required hospitalization, Mackniak said.

Melissa was able to “graduate” from the program and is no longer served by it. The project bears her name.  

“Melissa really typifies what we’re trying to stop,” Mackniak said. “Again, we’re trying to stop that recidivism and figure out ways to help the system help these individuals.”

The numbers point to the success of Melissa’s Project. 

An ongoing study by Yale University and the Connecticut Chief Forensic Psychiatrist’s office shows an average 51 percent reduction in the use of jails, prisons, hospital inpatient beds and emergency rooms among those served by Melissa’s Project, according to a news release issued by the Office of the Probate Court Administrator.

The success of Melissa’s Project caught the attention of state legislators this year.

Mackniak was called to testify during public hearings before the legislature’s Mental Health Services Working Group earlier this year. The working group was a subcommittee of a task force formed following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last December.

Mackniak’s testimony piqued the subcommittee’s interest so much that he was called back in the weeks that followed to discuss Melissa’s Project with members individually.

Mackniak left an impression.  

One of the consensus recommendations to come out of the working group was to promote programs that provide case coordination for individuals with mental illness. The increase in funding for Melissa’s Project followed.   

“The additional funding for the expansion of Melissa’s Project will allow more of our clients to access services that will facilitate their recovery,” DMHAS Commissioner Patricia Rehmer said in the release.  

With the additional funding the staff at Guardian ad Litem Services has doubled from eight to 16, including nine social workers and a regional director.  

Melissa’s Project will now help people in the Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven and Middletown areas. Currently, Melissa’s Project serves people with mental illnesses in the greater Waterbury area and the Naugatuck Valley.

Eventually, Mackniak and Valentino are hoping to take the program statewide and into surrounding states. For now, the two are satisfied that the message of Melissa’s Project resonated with the legislature to the point lawmakers felt it vital enough to expand it’s presence in the state.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Valentino said.