Whatever reluctance Gov. Nathan Deal felt as he accepted two more years of federal oversight of Georgia’s mental health system had to have been tempered by the alternative: legal sanctions over the state’s failure to meet its obligations under a 2010 agreement.
The U.S. Department of Justice was prepared to go to federal court Monday to make its case that Georgia officials should be held in contempt for not complying with the earlier agreement. That landmark settlement called for an overhaul of how the state delivers services to people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.
Lawyers for the state had argued that federal authorities were overreaching, trying to hold Georgia to terms not contained in the original agreement. Nothing in the original agreement, they argued, stipulated how good new homes had to be for developmentally disabled adults transferred out of state hospitals.
U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell, who has managed the federal oversight since 2010, made clear during a recent hearing he didn’t think much of 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.’”
The 2010 agreement settled a Justice Department civil-rights investigation opened in response to a 2007 series of articles in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called “A Hidden Shame.” The articles documented more than 100 suspicious, preventable deaths in the state psychiatric hospitals between 2002 and 2007. The stories also revealed neglect, abuse, substandard medical care and other lapses that contributed to patient deaths and injuries.
The state was supposed to have moved all people with developmental disabilities out of state hospitals by July 2015. But more than 200 remain in the facilities, where many have lived for decades.
What’s worse, 79 of the first 500 transferred to group homes or other community settings died under questionable circumstances, a court-appointed monitor determined.
So for Deal, signing an agreement his lawyers negotiated with the Justice Department was a more attractive alternative than fighting the federal government in court – and, possibly, losing. The federal government could have taken over the state’s entire mental health system, a major embarrassment that could also end up costing Georgia untold millions of dollars.
Deal inherited the original agreement from his predecessor, Sonny Perdue. Now, with the new agreement, the federal oversight will continue until six months before Deal leaves office – if not longer. Unless the state fulfills its promises this time, yet another governor will have to face the consequences.