Advocacy group files mental health lawsuit

Published 8:00 pm Thursday, March 11, 2010

A regional advocacy group and its backers have filed a lawsuitagainst Mississippi, claiming the state’s mental health programsfail mentally ill children and violate federal law in theprocess.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi Youth JusticeProject, the Washington, D.C.-based Bazelon Center for MentalHealth and others sued the state in federal court in JacksonWednesday, claiming the state discriminates against mentally illchildren by committing them to institutions and failing to providefederally required home- and community-based mental healthservices.

Vanessa Carroll, a staff attorney with the Mississippi YouthJustice Project, said the Mississippi Department of Mental Healthallocates too much of its resources in facilities and institutionsthat are more expensive and less effective than home- andcommunity-based mental care.

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“Right now, parents of children who have significant mental healthneeds are forced to choose between hospitalizing their child andgoing without services,” she said. “We also want to see, on theother side, that children who don’t need to be hospitalized are notimproperly placed in hospitals and other facilities.”

DMH spokesperson Wendy Bailey was not available for commentThursday.

The department of mental health has been criticized from within andwithout over the last two years.

A 2008 report by the Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation andExpenditure Review made condemning remarks about the department andrecommended a turn to home- and community-based services.Mississippi was one of only six states to receive an “F” grade onthe annual report done by the National Alliance on MentalIllness.

Carroll pointed out most home- and community-based servicesprovided in the state come through the regional mental healthcomplexes, not DMH proper, but even those programs are limited to abasic level.

“For kids who have more intense needs, that’s not going to cut it,”Carroll said.

The department of mental health has professed its intention toimplement more home- and community-based services on severaloccasions, with former state board chairman Dr. Pat Ainsworthtelling a House Public Health Committee open hearing last year thedepartment is “trying to turn the Titanic.”

But for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and other dedicated mentalhealth reformers, the turn is not coming soon enough.

“The Titanic sank,” said District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith,D-Brookhaven, a longtime critic of DMH and member of the PEERcommittee. “They say we’re working toward improving in that area,but I’ve been told that for 11 years now.”

Hyde-Smith said she was not surprised by the lawsuit and called itsfiling “unfortunate,” but hopes the ordeal will open eyes statewideand help jumpstart a reform of the mental health system.

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven – another DMH criticand attempted reformer – said she is shocked there haven’t beenmore lawsuits. She has always been highly critical of DMH’s morethan $600 million budget and thousands of employees, big numbersthat would be unnecessary Mississippi followed the national trendand invested in home- and community-based services.

“The entire country went in another direction about 20 years agoand we didn’t go,” Currie said. “And not one thing we have done inthis legislative session, or last, even moved us in thatdirection.”

State board of mental health member Johnny Perkins, of Brookhaven,agreed with Hyde-Smith and Currie that fighting a lawsuit is anunfortunate way to reform Mississippi’s mental health procedures.But Perkins was even more hesitant, saying that forcing a change insuch a manner could have “unintended consequences” and proveunaffordable for the state.

“We have to have the money to continue to function the way we areand basically create another system,” he said. “It’s somethingthat, if we’re allowed to do gradually, it can be more of anevolutionary process. But if we’re forced into it, it becomes arevolutionary process.”