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Laura Placek brings her mental health experience to Crook County department

JASON CHANEY - Laura Placek took over as Crook County Mental Health Director two weeks ago.

Laura Placek stood among new local neighbors and peers Friday as a ceremonial ribbon was cut to officially open the new Lutheran Community Services Northwest facility in Prineville.

In a span of less than two weeks, the Crook County Mental Department stepped forward with a new facility, housed in the old hospital, and with a new director.

Placek takes the reins of the Mental Health Department following a two-decade career that spans a variety of positions in the mental health field. In Monroe, Wisconsin, she gained experience in direct service delivery, investigation, assessment and case management for offenders and consumers with severe and persistent mental health issues. She has also served people with drug and alcohol addictions and cognitive behavior limitations.

"I look forward to building your trust and accountability," she said of her new Crook County role. "I will continuously strive to build partnerships while bringing excellent community service to the people of Crook County."

The path Placek took to the field of mental health service and ultimately the director role in Prineville originated with a family foundation that emphasized serving others.

"I came from hard-working parents who always taught me and my siblings to serve, to give back to both the towns we grew up in as well as our spiritual connections," she recalls.

That upbringing spawned an initial interest becoming an attorney, so she started out attending law school. However, her plans changed as she realized she could not afford to pursue that type of education.

"So I changed my degree a little bit," she said, graduating with a unique dual degree in criminal justice and social welfare.

Completing school in the late 1980s as a national recession took hold, she found it difficult to find work. Meanwhile, she married her husband, whom she met while attending University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and started a family.

"Then I was offered a position in the department of correction for the State of Wisconsin," she said. "After year one, I became a specialized agent. I was working with really high-risk offenders."

Placek ascended the ranks of the corrections department, taking on supervisory roles along the way, but became concerned that too often mentally ill offenders were convicted of crimes repeatedly rather than treated.

"There were certain things that this particular group (of people) could not comprehend without assistance," she observed. "I did not like that (convicting) was the only alternative we had for folks with severe and persistent mental health issues."

So with the blessing of her family, Placek completed work on a Master's Degree from the University of Southern New Hampshire and took on new positions where she could be a catalyst in terms of helping systems or agencies that deal with offenders. Instead of being an enforcer, she was now an advocate.

"That is how I find myself here, and I really feel good about making that change," she said.

Stepping into the Mental Health director role, Placek said she intends to elevate staff and enable them to improve the service they provide while spending time personally working with the programs and their clients.

"In my personal opinion and professional experience, the best kinds of leadership can see all facets and are open to all perspectives and have experience in all perspectives," she explained.

In the more immediate future, she plans to get a handle on what the needs are of the department and the community she now calls home. Longer term, she intends to bolster or improve existing community partnerships with the mental health department and forge new ones.

Having only passed through Prineville during past vacations, Placek is eager to not only settle into a community that reminds her of where she grew up, but is also closer to her two daughters who both live on the West Coast.

"When I come down the hill, I have an immediate calm feeling, and I have a sense of nostalgia coming here," she said, explaining that Monroe, Wisconsin, is very similar to Prineville. "Folks are warm and friendly and that reminds me of home."

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