Report: Ga. makes progress on mental health services, more needed

    State-administered mental health services in Georgia made good strides in recent years, but more needs to be done to help people avoid homelessness and to protect them from neglect before federal oversight can be lifted.

    That is the conclusion of a court report written by independent reviewer Elizabeth Jones. The U.S. Northern District Court appointed Jones to monitor Georgia’s mental health programs. The state could help thousands more people with chronic mental illness find and keep housing than it currently does. While the state has provided housing support for around 4,600 people since 2010, enough funding is available to likely house up to 1,200 more, Jones wrote.

    The state’s crisis-intervention practices are too lax and dozens of people have died under state care in recent years from causes that could have been prevented, the report says.

    On the positive side, the report says state hospital admissions for people with developmental disabilities has “effectively ended.” The number of developmentally disabled people admitted to hospitals dropped from 886 to 146 over roughly the past decade, Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities spokeswoman Angelyn Dionysatos said by email Thursday.

    Mental health services administered by the department were placed under federal oversight in 2010, when the U.S. Department of Justice sued the state for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Federal authorities argued Georgia kept physically and mentally disabled people for too long in state hospitals and psychiatric wards, and did not provide enough resources to help them stay on their feet once released.

    Georgia officials asked to dissolve the court agreement earlier this year. Monday’s report urged the agreement to remain in place.

    “Unfortunately, the State’s assertions do not always reflect current facts and are sometimes inconsistent with the legal requirements in this case,” Jones said in the report.

    The state has poured more than $270 million into bolstering mental health services since 2010 and has “faithfully honored” the settlement’s demand to improve those services, DBHDD Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald said in a statement Tuesday.

    “While I am frustrated by the conclusions reached by the independent reviewer, I am proud to stand by the tremendous progress by the dedicated professionals at (the department) and our provider network,” Fitzgerald said.

    Overall, the report cautioned that reducing state funds for mental services could risk undoing improvements made over the years. Mental health advocates worry Gov. Brian Kemp’s recent request for a 4% budget cut across all departments this year could remove more than $50 million allocated for mental health services, said Devon Orland, the litigation director for the nonprofit Georgia Advocacy Office.

    “I hope this budget doesn’t get cut because people will get hurt,” Orland said by phone Thursday. “The reality is when money is cut, it’s the most vulnerable people who are harmed.”

    During Georgia’s recession-era state budget slashing, the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities was one of the few state agencies where lawmakers increased spending. Behavioral health funding increased by $131.8 million from 2009 to 2014 as a result of the settlement.

    Beau Evans
    Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College. Beau was with the Georgia Recorder until January 4th, 2020.

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