Justice Dept.: State ‘discriminates’ against mentally ill adults

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Vanita Gupta, U.S. DOJ civil-rights division chief

U.S. Department of Education

Vanita Gupta, head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division

The U.S. Department of Justice sued Mississippi on Thursday, saying the state discriminates against adults with mental illness by over relying on “unnecessary institutionalization,” in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Mississippi violates the ADA by denying residents with disabilities the services the law requires and the support they deserve, forcing them to cycle in and out of state hospitals, emergency rooms and jails.  The Justice Department’s lawsuit demonstrates our firm commitment to vindicate the rights of people with mental illness,” Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

Adam Moore, a spokesman for DMH, said he cannot comment on the lawsuit but provided information about the agency’s Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU) program, which is designed for people experiencing acute psychiatric distress or sudden emotional pressure that affects an individual’s ability to cope with everyday situations.

“The major goal of the CSUs is to keep people as close to home as possible, divert the person from needing to be sent to a State Hospital, and prevent the need to be submitted to the civil commitment process by offering voluntary admission. CSUs frequently admit persons voluntarily who believe they need help, thus avoiding the need for Civil Commitment. CSUs also stabilize people who have been ordered into treatment through the Civil Commitment process of the Chancery Court. CSUs take admissions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” the information from DMH states.

The 31-page federal complaint was filed in federal court in Jackson. State officials and mental-health advocates have long expected a suit since the justice department issued a scathing investigative report in December 2011.

Mississippi State Hospital.

Mississippi State Hospital

Mississippi State Hospital

“Every day, hundreds of adults with mental illness are unnecessarily and illegally segregated in Mississippi’s state-run psychiatric hospitals or are at serious risk of entering these institutions,” the lawsuit states. “They enter and remain in these isolating institutions because the State of Mississippi … has failed to provide them sufficient community-based mental health services.”

While confined in these institutions, adults with mental illness are unnecessarily cut off from non-disabled family and friends and others in the community, the lawsuit notes.

“By virtue of their institutionalization, these adults with disabilities are deprived of meaningful opportunities to choose friends, work, or make choices about their day to day activities, such as what and when to eat, when to make a phone call, and where to go on a walk,” the lawsuit states. These individuals experience the type of “[u]njustified isolation” that the Supreme Court held “is properly regarded as discrimination based on disability,” the department claims.

In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court said that people with disabilities have a constitutional right to live in their communities rather than be warehoused in mental institutions. The ruling was supposed to prompt states to move towards expanding community mental-health services and away from institutionalization.

Mississippi did not immediately follow that guidance.

The Justice Department wrote in 2011: “In spite of recent commitments to build community capacity and better serve persons with disabilities in integrated community settings, the State has done little to change the institutional status quo. In fact, Mississippi is the only jurisdiction in the country that serves more than 25 percent of the people with (developmental disabilities) in its system in large state institutions.”

Thursday’s lawsuit claims that Mississippi’s state hospitals remain segregated and that individuals in long-term units have been there for years. In addition, the complaint states that the Legislature has focused on institutions instead of community based services and that the state “has long been aware of the failures of its mental health system.”

U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in a press release: “When individuals with mental illness receive the services they need, they are better able to find meaningful work, secure stable housing, build personal relationships, and avoid involvement with the criminal justice system.”

She continued: “For far too long, Mississippi has failed people with mental illness, violating their civil rights by confining them in isolating institutions.  Our lawsuit seeks to end these injustices, and it sends a clear signal that we will continue to fight for the full rights and liberties of Americans with mental illness.”

Attorney General Jim Hood, in a separate statement, said his office has been negotiating with the Justice Department for several years in an effort to avoid costly litigation but he refused to agree to a court-ordered consent decree because, he said, it “would bind the state to perpetual federal oversight.”

“Until this year, we have been effective in preventing a lawsuit and saving the state millions of dollars in anticipated expenses and attorneys’ fees,” Hood said in a press release. “Unfortunately, the Legislature this year chose to put money toward big corporate tax cuts rather than meet the needs of those among us who most need our assistance. We are now in the undesirable position of fighting a lawsuit that will cost us even more.  It’s time to act on behalf of our mentally ill residents and invest in the care they deserve.”

  • Charles Pearce

    Our haughty state and county officials should not waste money and time fighting this case in court. Instead, in order to better develop community-based facilities, sweep clean the campaign accounts of every public official not facing election this year. At the end of the year, sweep all accounts of officials with elections in November. However, let’s get real. Only the Legislature can pass campaign finance reform, and that is why nothing like this will happen… just a dream.