AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Death of 14-year-old Georgia girl helped trigger sweeping reform

Sarah Crider, at right in this family photo, was 14 when she died in a state psychiatric hospital.

Alone in the darkness of a state mental hospital, Sarah Crider, 14, lay slowly dying.


She complained of stomach pain at 4:30 p.m. She vomited about 8:30. When the only physician on call at Georgia Regional Hospital/Atlanta came at 9:20, Sarah had vomited again, but the doctor did not examine her, medical records suggest. She threw up around midnight and once more about 2 a.m., this time a bloody substance that resembled coffee grounds. But hospital workers did not enter Sarah's room again until 6:15 a.m. By then, it was too late.


A few hours later, two hospital employees drove to Cobb County to tell Joyce Dobson, Sarah's grandmother. Dobson adored Sarah for all her complexities: artistic but troubled, challenging but comic. Now she could think only of two nights earlier, when she had last visited Sarah and heard another patient's haunting scream.


“I hope nobody killed her,” Dobson blurted out.

This story, published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January 2007, set in motion a sweeping reform of how Georgia serves people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

But, despite a federal investigation, millions of dollars in new state spending, a judge’s oversight and the best efforts of advocacy groups, Georgia still hasn’t completed its promised overhaul of state hospitals and community-based services, the Journal-Constitution has found.

A recent report by a court-appointed reviewer said the state must “act with urgency” to meet two important deadlines. The state has until the end of June 2018 to move all people with developmental disabilities out of state hospitals and to provide housing to 9,000 people with serious, persistent mental illness.

State officials insist they are working at a “reasonable” pace. But at that pace, it could take another 10 years to complete the transfer of developmentally disabled patients to community settings.

At the same time, officials are investigating numerous deaths in community treatment, including about five dozen apparent suicides.

Back in 2006, Sarah Crider died from a severe intestinal blockage that stretched her colon almost to the point of bursting. At the state hospital, her condition went undiagnosed and untreated.

Sarah was buried in a sprawling cemetery in Marietta. At her graveside service, her classmates held red, heart-shaped balloons, and one child read aloud, “Sarah, you’re my best friend, and I’m going to miss you.”

That was Feb. 16, 2006. Now, with reforms to the system that killed her still unfinished, Sarah would be 25 years old.

Read the Journal-Constitution's latest report on Georgia's psychiatric hospitals.


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