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Justice department sues Mississippi over discrimination against adults with mental illness

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department today filed a complaint against the state of Mississippi, alleging that it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) by failing to provide adults with mental illness with necessary integrated, community-based mental health services.  The community integration mandate of the ADA and the Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C. require states to make services available to people with disabilities – including people with mental illness – in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.

The DOJ said the state’s failure to provide services in community settings forces adults with mental illness to access services and care in segregated state hospitals, including the Mississippi State Hospital, East Mississippi State Hospital, North Mississippi State Hospital and South Mississippi State Hospital.  Under Olmstead, unnecessarily forcing people with disabilities to enter institutions to get services constitutes unlawful discrimination.

In December 2011, after conducting a comprehensive investigation,the department found that the state’s system for serving individuals with mental health disabilities violates the ADA.  The department found that the state unnecessarily institutionalizes adults and children with disabilities and fails to ensure that they have access to necessary services and supports in the community.  The state has recognized these failures but has not yet implemented the required reforms to meet the needs of persons with disabilities.

“When individuals with mental illness receive the services they need, they are better able to find meaningful work, secure stable housing, build personal relationships, and avoid involvement with the criminal justice system,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.  “For far too long, Mississippi has failed people with mental illness, violating their civil rights by confining them in isolating institutions.  Our lawsuit seeks to end these injustices, and it sends a clear signal that we will continue to fight for the full rights and liberties of Americans with mental illness”

The suit also stated that the discrimination could hinder a person with mental illness from being able to work and be the part of society they wish to be.

“When individuals with mental illness get the services they need and the care they deserve, they can live and work in their own communities,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.  “Mississippi violates the ADA by denying residents with disabilities the services the law requires and the support they deserve, forcing them to cycle in and out of state hospitals, emergency rooms and jails.  The Justice Department’s lawsuit demonstrates our firm commitment to vindicate the rights of people with mental illness.”

Even in institutions, the healthcare is sub-par, according to the lawsuit.

“In Mississippi, adults with mental illness receive inadequate mental health care – care that is too often in segregated, institutional placements,” said U.S. Attorney Gregory Davis of the Southern District of Mississippi.  “Mississippi has not developed the necessary supports in the community to prevent unnecessary institutionalization as required by the ADA.”

The complaint alleged that gaps and weaknesses in the state’s mental health system too often subject adults with mental illness to needless trauma, especially during a crisis.  According to the complaint, adults with mental illness who experience a crisis in Mississippi often spend days in local emergency rooms and jail holding facilities that are ill-equipped to address their needs, before ultimately being transported to the state’s psychiatric hospitals.  This costly and traumatic process could be avoided if adults with mental illness received proven and effective services in the community to prevent and deescalate crises, enable them to maintain safe housing and assist them in finding and holding employment.

 

Since issuing its findings letter, the department engaged in discussions with the state to reach a settlement resolving the violations the department identified.  The parties, however, were ultimately unable to come to an agreement that would ensure the needed services and supports for people with disabilities in Mississippi.  In order to vindicate the rights of adults with mental illness under the ADA, the United States has filed this lawsuit under the ADA and CRIPA.  The United States is also participating as amicus in ongoing litigation against Mississippi in Troupe v. Barbour, a case that addresses the state’s ADA obligations toward children with mental health disabilities.  The United States remains committed to resolving all of the violations the department identified in its findings letter.

Here is the full Mississippi Olmstead Complaint from the Department of Justice.

Attorney General Jim Hood commented on the lawsuit:

“This lawsuit is a clarion call to all of us in state leadership to consider how we care for the least among us and how we can make it better,” Attorney General Hood said. “I see this litigation as a challenge to our Legislature to find the resources we need to continue to expand mental health services. This is a clear opportunity for our Legislature, mental health professionals, our faith-based community and all of us as Mississippians to come together to determine an effective way to address issues related to our mental health delivery system for years to come. It’s our obligation as Christians and people of faith to take care of those who are unable to take care of themselves.  It’s time for each of us to move forward to better fulfill that fundamental responsibility.

“The state has made great progress in expanding community mental health programs, and we will continue to push for expansion. We have come a long way, but further work remains to be done.”

Attorney General Hood said his office has been negotiating with DOJ for several years in an effort to avoid litigation, which is expected to be a considerable cost to the state at a time when tax cuts have caused significant budget problems. However, the Attorney General refused to accept the federal government’s demands for a court-ordered consent decree that would bind the state to perpetual federal oversight.

Attorney General Hood had also hoped that good-faith efforts to address the state’s mental health needs might allay the federal government’s concerns. Thus, the Attorney General has encouraged lawmakers for years to allocate additional resources to the Department of Mental Health. The Legislature did provide some extra funding in previous sessions, but this year actually cut the Department’s budget by $8.3 million. Since 2008, the Department has been forced to eliminate approximately 500 mental health beds, in addition to 34 beds in 2016 because of the Legislature’s budget cuts and its refusal to provide additional money for mental health programs.

“Not only did the Department of Mental Health take a substantial budget hit, the Legislature did not agree to a request for more than $12 million for community mental health programs,” Attorney General Hood said. “That would have helped us continue our expansion of community-based mental health services and kept us moving in the right direction, as we’ve consistently been doing already.”

The Attorney General noted that Georgia has been involved in similar litigation with DOJ since 2010 and has already spent more than $200 million.

“Until this year, we have been effective in preventing a lawsuit and saving the state millions of dollars in anticipated expenses and attorneys’ fees,” Attorney General Hood said. “Unfortunately, the Legislature this year chose to put money toward big corporate tax cuts rather than meet the needs of those among us who most need our assistance. We are now in the undesirable position of fighting a lawsuit that will cost us even more.  It’s time to act on behalf of our mentally ill residents and invest in the care they deserve.”

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