James Shelson, lead attorney representing the state, carries documents as he and his colleagues exit the federal courthouse in Jackson, following a hearing on updates about the status of the lawsuit over mental health services in Mississippi, Monday, July 12, 2021. The U.S. Justice Department claims the state has failed to provide adequate services in the community for adults with mental illness. Credit: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

A watchdog group tasked with overseeing the state’s psychiatric facilities is suing the Department of Mental Health for withholding information – again.

Disability Rights Mississippi, a nonprofit organization that advocates for Mississippians with disabilities, filed its second lawsuit this year against the state Department of Mental Health (DMH) after the agency denied records requests related to an investigation of the treatment of individuals with mental illness in the forensic unit of Mississippi State Hospital.

The investigation was partially inspired by Raffell Franklin who was charged with first-degree murder in April 2017. Franklin has been in the Jasper County Jail for three years despite being found incompetent to stand trial by doctors at the Mississippi State Hospital in 2019.

DRMS initiated an investigation into the treatment of Franklin after receiving a call from Franklin’s family and other civil rights organizations. After receiving Franklin’s medical records, the advocacy group sought to investigate how patients similar to Franklin are treated in the state hospital’s forensic unit. The unit serves patients who have been diverted from correctional settings, typically due to a mental illness that renders them unfit for trial. 

The advocacy group additionally requested waiting lists for individuals needing evaluation or services from the hospital’s forensic unit, as well as records from South Mississippi Regional Center after being contacted by an anonymous whistleblower who alleged there was potential abuse and neglect at the facility. 

The agency denied both requests. 

“Ensuring people with disabilities are protected from abuse and neglect is our mission, always,” Polly Tribble, executive director of Disability Rights Mississippi, said in a press release. “We would hope that would be DMH’s same goal. Why they have chosen, yet again, to deny vulnerable Mississippians access to meaningful and effective protection and advocacy remains a mystery.”

DMH declined to comment and referred Mississippi Today to the attorney general’s office. The attorney general’s office also declined, saying they do not comment on active cases.

The agency’s attorneys are using similar arguments used to deny the requests at the center of the initial lawsuit. In regards to the request for a list of MSH patients who have pled “not guilty by reason of insanity or mental defect,” the mental health agency is arguing that Disability Rights of Mississippi hasn’t shown it has enough evidence to warrant an investigation.

DMH also says since the list of individuals waiting to be evaluated or admitted to the state hospital are not under the direct care of the hospital at this time, the watchdog group has no basis for investigating it. 

“Once again, DMH has deemed itself the judge and jury on the determination of probable cause, which is not the case,” the lawsuit reads. 

The U.S. Department of Justice pointed out in an amicus brief filing in the first lawsuit that protection and advocacy groups like Disability Rights of Mississippi have the authority to make probable cause determinations, and they do not have to justify them with specific evidence.

“The applicable regulations also do not require that any specific type of evidence support the (protection and advocacy system’s) probable cause determination,” the amicus brief reads.

Disability Rights of Mississippi maintains that the state mental health agency is continuing to violate federal law in denying its request and is preventing the oversight group from doing its job.

“This goes far beyond paperwork and records,” Tribble said. “It is about the fact that, in denying access and in refusing to be transparent, DMH is interfering with (our) ability to carry out our federal mandate to protect people with disabilities in Mississippi.”

The U.S. Department of Justice, which originally sued the state over its lack of community-based services for people with mental illness in 2016, sided with the watchdog group on the issue. 

Attorneys for the federal government filed an amicus brief, in which a non-party in the case with expertise on the issue weighs in with a legal filing.

The Department of Justice argues in the brief that the federal laws that give state protection and advocacy (P&A) systems like Disability Rights of Mississippi their power grant them broad authority to investigate abuse or neglect. 

“Access to this limited set of records is entirely consistent with DRMS’ broad investigative authority and statutory mandate to ensure that individuals with mental illness or disabilities are not abused or neglected,” the brief reads.

U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves will soon weigh in on whether the state agency must release the records.

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Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.