For Immediate Release
March 28, 2023
Disability Rights North Carolina (DRNC) has initiated the country’s first national database centralizing information on criminal legal system-related brain injury screening and supportive service programs, including pilots, academic studies, and projects from the past 30 years. Users will be able to search for reports about prior and ongoing TBI screening projects across the nation and for all population categories: juvenile justice, adult corrections, specialty courts, probation, and parole. The launch’s timing is notable: March is Brain Injury Awareness Month.
This significant database is critical to developing consistent screening and treatment for people with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in jails and prisons – a population that historically has been unrecognized in the criminal legal system.
This neglect is glaring. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognizes TBI as “an important public health problem” in our nation’s jails and prisons.
“In the past 15 years, there’s been no national study about people with TBI who are involved in the criminal legal system,” said Desireé Gorbea-Finalet, project manager for DRNC’s TBI Justice Initiative, and the person behind the database’s creation. “That’s why we feel this database is so important. The studies from back then indicate as many as 25-87 percent of incarcerated people had a brain injury, and the inference has to be there’s more now, not less.”
TBIs are caused by an external force that injures the brain, such as blunt force trauma caused by motor vehicle accidents, being hit in the head by objects, and slips and falls. Military personnel can experience a TBI from exposure to explosions in combat. Effects from these injuries can be physical and behavioral and may last a lifetime.
Gorbea-Finalet is a multiple TBI survivor who has seen and experienced firsthand how people who have sustained a TBI are often isolated and de-humanized, and met with lack of understanding that accommodations may be needed. Too often people mislabel brain injury symptoms as the person being ‘non-compliant, disorderly, and mentally or emotionally unstable.’
When she began her work with DRNC’s TBI Justice Initiative in the fall of 2021, Gorbea-Finalet’s original goal was to work with NC’s prison system to institute screening for TBI, understanding that NC is among dozens of states that are not screening people for TBI upon admission to prison. “The need is certainly there, but there is much work to do before we can get to that outcome,” she said.
So in addition to compiling the database, she reached out to NC’s five Veteran Treatment Courts (VTCs) with the goal of developing a successful initiative that can be duplicated across other NC correctional settings, document outcomes, and serve as a national model. This proved to be an important connection, resulting in a ground-breaking partnership with courts in Buncombe, Cumberland, Forsyth, Catawba, and Harnett counties. DRNC’s TBI Justice Initiative will work in collaboration with VTC partners to identify brain injury in criminal legal system-involved individuals and implement referral to supportive services, education, training, and accommodations for people with TBI.
Partnering in the TBI Justice Initiative is Adam Shaw, a US Navy veteran with TBI, who began as a University of North Carolina (UNC) at Greensboro graduate student intern with the project. Since graduating, he continues to work on the project as a volunteer, including helping design the database. “He speaks a lot with veterans in the VTCs. Veterans speak with veterans. They trust me because I have lived experience, but they will always want to speak with veterans,” Gorbea-Finalet said.
Work with the VTCs is still getting off the ground, and Gorbea-Finalet and DRNC are actively seeking funding to bolster this effort. In the meantime, Gorbea-Finalet’s current funding lasts through September, and she is working toward adding three more NC counties that recently received funding for VTCs: Iredell, New Hanover, and Onslow.
“DRNC is poised to have a meaningful, widespread impact in the tremendously overlooked and underreported disability of TBI,” Gorbea-Finalet said. “Our vision for the project’s outcome is to increase identification of TBI, connect and strengthen existing services and supports, discover remaining training needs, and propose recommendations.”
About Disability Rights North Carolina
Disability Rights North Carolina is the federally mandated protection and advocacy system in North Carolina, dedicated to advancing the rights of all people with disabilities, of all ages, statewide. DRNC is an independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and a member of the National Disability Rights Network. Learn more about Disability Rights North Carolina at disabilityrightsnc.org.
Desireé Gorbea-Finalet, MA
Project Manager, TBI Justice Initiative