UPDATE, March 29, 2016: A contempt hearing was rescheduled for May after lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department and the state told a judge they have begun negotiating a new agreement.
When Georgia agreed to overhaul its mental health system, it promised it would put 9,000 psychiatric patients in their own homes by July 2015.
"Could," lawyers for the state now say, not "would."
In fact, federal authorities alleged in court documents filed this week, none of the 9,000 has yet moved into the “supported” housing promised in the 2010 settlement agreement. Consequently, the U.S. Department of Justice says, Georgia is violating the agreement and should be held in contempt of court.
The housing issue underscores the growing divide between the state and the federal government over how to complete a transformation of Georgia’s notorious psychiatric facilities.
In papers filed for a March 28 hearing in U.S. District Court, federal officials say the state’s arguments are “self-serving” and are “little more than an attempt to dodge its obligation.”
The state says it’s making progress and should be left alone.
The federal intervention in Georgia’s psychiatric-care system followed reports in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about more than 100 suspicious deaths of state-hospital patients between 2002 and 2007. The newspaper documented substandard medical care, neglect and abuse of patients, and a lack of oversight that contributed to dozens of deaths and injuries.
The Justice Department acknowledges Georgia has made progress. But it also says the state failed to meet crucial requirements of the settlement agreement, leaving hundreds of patients in unacceptable settings.
For example, the state promised to move nearly 700 patients with developmental disabilities out of psychiatric hospitals into community settings by July 1, 2015. But the state has fallen more than 200 patients short of that number. If it continued at the current pace, the Justice Department argues, the state would still be transferring patients 19 years from now.
The state says it is moving at a “reasonable and responsible pace” to fulfill its obligations.
Federal authorities also complain that many patients who left state hospitals went into group homes or other facilities that couldn’t provide the care they needed. Several died shortly after their transfers, including one who committed suicide in a “crisis stabilization center” in Albany.
Lawyers for the state contend the settlement agreement didn’t specify how good the community placements had to be.
But in a recent hearing, U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell swatted away the state’s argument.
“When you put somebody back in a community from one of your hospitals,” Pannell said, “you just can’t drive by the square in Ellijay, Georgia, and set him out on the square and say, ‘We’ve put him back in the community.’”
A similar argument is forming over housing for people with mental illness.
The settlement agreement required the state to have the “capacity” to provide as many as 9,000 homes by last July. The Justice Department says the people covered by the agreement “haven’t had opportunities to move into their own home.”
But in their own court filings, the state’s lawyers say the agreement “does not require the state to provide 9,000 beds, nor does it require the state to provide individuals ‘their own home’ or bed.”
Instead, the state argues, it only had to develop the “capacity” to do so. The state says it’s working on that.