Miss. sued on behalf of mentally ill children

JACKSON, Miss

Mississippi forces mentally ill children through a lonely cycle of restrictive psychiatric facilities when community-based programs would better serve their needs, a youth advocacy group said Wednesday in a federal lawsuit.

The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C., and the Mississippi Youth Justice Project, part of the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Jackson on behalf of four people ranging in age from 12 to 17.

“Children in Mississippi with behavioral and emotional problems face a rigid, facility-based mental health system that both ignores and exacerbates their needs,” the lawsuit said. “In order to access intensive mental health services in Mississippi, children must either deteriorate to the point of crisis required for involuntary hospitalization, or submit to unnecessary institutionalization.”

The 22-page lawsuit seeks class action status to include potentially hundreds of Medicaid-eligible children with behavioral or emotional disorders. The youthful plaintiffs are identified only by their initials in court records.

The goal is to force Mississippi to create “a more robust system of home- and community-based services for children with significant mental health needs,” SPLC attorney Vanessa Carroll told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The lawsuit named several state officials as defendants, including Gov. Haley Barbour and the directors of the Division of Medicaid and the Mississippi Department of Mental Health.

Medicaid spokesman Francis Rullan said the agency had not had an opportunity to review the lawsuit with its legal counsel.

Still, Rullan said the lawyers who filed it overlooked the fact that thousands of Mississippi children are treated in community settings and ignored the success of a state Medicaid waiver program called Mississippi Youth Programs Around the Clock, or MYPAC, which provides alternatives to residential facilities.

MYPAC, which has treated about 425 youth since late 2007, is funded by a $49.5 million federal grant that Mississippi officials hope will be expanded in the future.

“In fact, earlier this year, MYPAC won an award for its outstanding service to children, so to ignore this important point seems a little disingenuous,” Rullan said. “We look forward to aggressively defending our position.”

Carroll, the SPLC attorney, said MYPAC is a good start and “close to the model we’re looking for.”

“The only drawback with MYPAC is that it’s a pilot program and it can only serve a limited number of children,” she said. “It just needs to be a permanent part of our system.”

¬†Department of Mental Health officials wanted to review the lawsuit before commenting, agency spokeswoman Wendy Bailey said.Barbour spokeswoman Laura Hipp said he doesn’t comment on pending litigation. Barbour proposed earlier this year shutting down some mental health facilities, though that proposal was geared toward adult centers.

Still, in discussing the adult facilities in January, Barbour made a point similar to one in the lawsuit. Other states have moved toward community-based care while “Mississippi continued to have a huge bias for institutionalization,” he said.

One plaintiff in the lawsuit, described as 17-year-old J.B., has spent 13 years in the system. The lawsuit claims his experience is similar to other youth who are torn from their families and sent to institutions, sometimes far from home.

J.B. has been “hospitalized at least five times, placed in six different foster homes, five residential treatment facilities, more than ten group homes and shelters; and locked in a secure detention facility on at least twelve occasions,” the lawsuit said.

On at least one occasion, J.B. was forced into an institution not because of his own problems, but because his “mother had resumed drinking and could not offer a stable environment,” the lawsuit said.

It also claims the only reason he’s still in a secure facility now is to get job training, something that could be done in a community-based setting if it was available.

More than 1,300 Mississippi youngsters were placed in a psychiatric facility or therapeutic group home in 2009, the lawsuit said. And some 700 children were committed to a state hospital in 2008.

“The great majority of these children could and should have been served instead in their own homes or in a therapeutic foster home,” according to the lawsuit.

The Mississippi Youth Justice Project has sued the state before, including a lawsuit over allegedly frightening conditions at Mississippi’s juvenile correction centers. Columbia Training School for girls was shut down in the wake of allegations of abuse.

By HOLBROOK MOHR – Associated Press Writer
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