When the state’s advocacy organization for people with disabilities couldn’t get the Department of Mental Health to turn over records that could show abuse or neglect at state-run psychiatric facilities, it sued. This week, the two parties reached a settlement that will allow the advocacy group to access reports of serious incidents involving staff and residents through an online system.
“The Department of Mental Health is going to allow us to see what we need to see,” said Polly Tribble, executive director of the nonprofit Disability Rights Mississippi, the group that sued the mental health department. “We can do our job.”
Department spokesperson Adam Moore said in an email to Mississippi Today that the settlement will provide extra transparency.
“Though the incident reports included in this agreement were already being reported to the Attorney General’s Office and all other required licensure entities, Disability Rights will now be able to access these reports at any time and request additional documentation if needed,” he said.
Last year, Disability Rights began hearing about how staffing shortages were leading to neglect at the state hospitals. The group is Mississippi’s “protection and advocacy (P&A) system,” charged by the U.S. Congress with advocating for people with disabilities and investigating abuse and neglect at programs that serve them. Each state has a P&A.
The advocacy group sought incident reports from 10 mental and behavioral health facilities around the state, a broad request intended to identify potential patterns and trends. But the state refused to turn over the reports, arguing that the group hadn’t shown “probable cause” to launch a systemic investigation and was undertaking “a fishing expedition.”
The Department of Justice sued the state of Mississippi over its failure to provide adequate community-based mental health services in 2016. U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves sided with the federal government and last year ordered the state to comply with a reform plan overseen by a special monitor.
Disability Rights sued the agency in November after months of negotiations over the records.
Tribble was surprised the lawsuit was necessary; her organization has always had a good relationship with the Department of Mental Health, she said.
On Wednesday morning, Disability Rights staff used the new system to access incident reports for the first time, though there are still some technical kinks to work out.
“Our intention all along has been to look at the reports and see if there’s any patterns of abuse by a particular staff person, but also to see if the staffing shortage is having an effect on incidents,” she said. “Which I suspect it is. But we don’t know.”
The Justice Department filed an amicus brief siding with the advocacy organization in March. The brief asked the court to order the department to turn over the incident reports from its facilities.
“During its routine monitoring activities, DRMS advocates observed troubling issues, including understaffing, unreported incidents, patient neglect, nonuse of COVID protocol and precautions by onsite staff, and staff-on-resident injuries and incidents,” the brief said. “Most importantly, the existence of incident reports regarding specific individuals inherently indicates that unusual events involving those individuals, such as harm or an error or omission in care, have occurred.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice declined to comment for this story.
Lawyers at the attorney general’s office represented the Department of Mental Healthin the suit.
“The State remains committed to serving Mississippians in need of mental health and substance use services and we were pleased to be able to reach a resolution in this case,” Michelle Williams, chief of staff for Attorney General Lynn Fitch, said in a statement.
Earlier this year, the advocacy group settled another lawsuit with the department after it denied a request for records relating to the Mississippi State Hospital’s forensic unit, which serves people who have been diverted from jail or prison, usually because they have a mental illness that makes them unfit to stand trial. The organization wanted to investigate after getting reports of mistreatment.
Tribble said that settlement, too, allowed her organization to get the records it had initially sought.
Even as the Department of Mental Health says it is trying to comply with the court-ordered settlement agreement and expand community mental health services, the state attorney general is still fighting the ruling. Last year, the office appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, where it is arguing that the department is already providing needed services and that Reeves has unconstitutionally installed “perpetual federal oversight” of the state agency.
Oral arguments have been tentatively scheduled for the week of Oct. 3.