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Fairfax County officials celebrate the Merrifield Center’s renaming after former Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova, pictured on the left (courtesy Taylor Holland/Office of Jeffrey C. McKay)

Fairfax County’s Merrifield Center has a new, slightly more descriptive name.

The Sharon Bulova Center for Community Health was officially christened at a dedication ceremony yesterday (Thursday), taking its name from the former Board of Supervisors chairman who helped develop the Diversion First initiative aimed at shifting people with mental health and substance use challenges to treatment instead of incarceration.

“Sharon is more than a mentor, she is a friend, and her legacy to Fairfax County is unmatched,” said current Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay, Bulova’s successor. “It is entirely fitting that this center, which is at the heart of our Diversion First initiative, is named in her honor.”

Located at 8221 Willow Oaks Corporate Drive, the facility opened in March 2015 to serve as a central hub for the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, which provides emergency services and other supports for people who have mental illnesses, substance use disorders, and developmental disabilities.

As the board chairman from 2010 to 2020, Bulova oversaw Diversion First’s launch in 2016 as an effort to rethink the county’s approach to mental health after a police officer shot and killed Springfield resident John Geer in 2013 and sheriff’s deputies restrained and stunned Natasha McKenna, resulting in her death in 2015.

“It was their tragic deaths that sparked change,” Bulova said, acknowledging that it was a “pretty tense” time in the county. “Both incidents shown a stark light on the county’s need for reforms and policies regarding transparency, oversight, use of force, and criminal incident response, including and especially in cases involving persons suffering from mental illnesses.”

Focused on people involved in the criminal justice system for non-violent offenses, the initiative started primarily as a partnership between the CSB, police, and sheriff’s office. It has since expanded to include housing assistance and specialty veteran, mental health, and drug court dockets to address the specific needs of those populations.

Per a news release from McKay’s office:

Diversion First is designed to prevent repeat encounters with the criminal justice system, improve public safety, promote a healthier community and is a more cost effective and efficient use of public funding.

Since its founding in 2016, there have been more than 12,000 law enforcement transports to the now-Bulova Center where the Diversion First program is located. Over 8,600 people were under an emergency custody order and 3,540 additional transports were because an officer recognized that an individual in the community needed behavioral health services. Over 2,600 have been diverted from potential arrest. Of those transported to the MCRC by law enforcement, on average 80% do not have a repeat visit to the MCRC related to criminal justice involvement within a year. Over 80% of those diverted from potential arrest in 2019 were not incarcerated during the following year.

“Diversion First is a revolutionary concept that was and remains ahead of its time,” McKay said. “This remarkable facility and its community impact on a daily basis are a testament to the type of change that forward-thinking, innovative local government involvement can make.”

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