When the state’s disability advocacy organization 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 sides reached an agreement 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 will 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 spokesman Adam Moore said in an email to Mississippi Today that the settlement will provide additional transparency.
“Although the incident reports contained in this agreement were already being reported to the Office of the Attorney General and all other required licensing entities, Disability Rights will now be able to access these reports at any time and request additional documentation if necessary,” he said.
Last year, Disability Rights began hearing how understaffing was leading to neglect in state hospitals. The group is Mississippi’s defense and advocacy (P&A) system. impeached by the US Congress by advocating for people with disabilities and investigating abuse and neglect in programs that serve them. Every state has a P&A.
The advocacy group requested incident reports from 10 mental and behavioral health facilities statewide, a broad request intended to identify potential patterns and trends. But the state refused to hand over the reports, arguing the group had not shown “probable cause” to launch a systematic investigation and was undertaking “a fishing expedition”.
Department of Justice sued the state of Mississippi related to her 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 that 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, although there are still some technical issues to work out.
“Our goal all along has been to look at reports and see if there’s a pattern of abuse by a particular staff person, but also to see if understaffing is affecting incidents,” she said. “Which I doubt it is. But we don’t know.”
The Justice Department filed a brief with the advocacy organization in March. The filing asked the court to order the department to submit incident reports from its facilities.
“During routine monitoring activities, DRMS attorneys observed issues of concern, including understaffing, unreported incidents, patient neglect, failure to use COVID protocol and precautions by on-site staff, and injuries and incidents by on-site staff. resident,” the report states. “More importantly, the existence of incident reports relating to specific individuals essentially indicates that unusual events involving those individuals, such as injury or error or failure to act in care, have occurred.”
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment for this story.
Attorneys in the attorney general’s office represented the Department of Mental Health in the lawsuit.
“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 settlement in this case,” Michelle Williams, chief of to Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s staff.
Earlier this year, the advocacy group settled another lawsuit with the department behind it refused a registration request about Mississippi State Hospital’s forensic unit, which serves people who have been released from jail or prison, usually because they have a mental illness that makes them unfit to stand trial. The organization wanted to investigate after receiving reports of abuse.
Tribble said this solution also allowed her organization to get the data it originally sought.
Although 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 decision. Last year, the office appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, where it is arguing that the department is already providing the necessary services and that Reeves has unconstitutionally installed “permanent federal oversight” of the state agency.
Oral arguments are tentatively scheduled for the week of October 3.