More than 15 negotiating sessions. Telephone conference calls at least once a
week for four months. Five extensions of deadlines to file crucial court
After all that, talks to settle a federal investigation of Georgia’s mental
health system came down to a single meeting Wednesday. Yet again, the talks
Federal authorities immediately went to court, asking a judge to force Georgia
to make substantial and potentially expensive improvements in its state
psychiatric hospitals and in its community-based treatment services — the
same measures state officials rejected during the negotiations.
The U.S. Justice Department also wants the judge to take oversight of the
state system from Georgia’s newly formed mental health agency and put it
into the hands of an outside monitor.
“Regrettably, the parties’ negotiations have failed to resolve the United
States’ concerns,” Justice Department lawyers wrote in a motion to U.S.
District Judge Charles Pannell, who has supervised the negotiations, “and
the grave harm alleged in the United States’ [earlier] motion must be
The federal government sued the state in January 2009, claiming that its
inadequate mental health system violated patients’ civil rights. Wednesday’s
filing puts the state in the position of having to defend a system in which
years of under-funding and overcrowding contributed to dozens of patients’
But state officials, who met late Wednesday to plan a response to the filing,
said they hope negotiations will resume, despite the Justice Department’s
statements to the contrary.
“It’s not an end nor a beginning; we’re still in the middle of working through
what’s going to be the best plan for us,” said Tom Wilson, a spokesman for
the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. He
described Wednesday’s meeting as “one event in a long series of events.”
To advocates for people with mental illness, the state’s reluctance to accept
the Justice Department’s demands indicated that officials see no urgency to
correct dangerous conditions.
“The state is unwilling to take the steps it needs to take to fix these
problems,” said Alison Barkoff, a lawyer with the Bazelon Center for Mental
Health Law, which intervened in the federal case. “It’s a real missed
Cynthia Wainscott, a former president of the advocacy group Mental Health
America, said the failure of negotiations was especially disappointing in
light of state officials’ promises to improve services. Still, she said: “I
hope that we can quickly move forward, whether through an agreement or
through an order from the judge.”
Senior officials with the Justice Department’s civil rights division came to
Atlanta for Wednesday’s meeting with Frank Shelp, commissioner of the
behavioral health agency, and the state’s lawyers. Both sides thought they
could settle the case. But, participants said, state officials would not
budge on two major obstacles: how much to expand community services and how
to monitor the state’s performance under a new agreement.
The state had publicly complained about the demand for more community
services, saying the Justice Department was trying to unfairly expand the
scope of the original settlement, which covered only the state hospitals.
But “they’re interrelated,” Barkoff said. “You can’t fix one without fixing
Ultimately, participants in the negotiations said, the state failed to
convince federal officials of its commitment to change.
“There comes a point where revisiting the same substantive issues doesn’t make
sense,” said Ruby Moore, executive director of the Georgia Advocacy Office,
which also intervened.
The Justice Department opened its investigation in 2007, following a series of
articles in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that revealed more than 100
suspicious deaths of state hospital patients during the previous five years.
State and federal authorities reached an agreement in January 2009 that
called for improvements in the hospitals.
But a year later, the Justice Department asked Judge Pannell to set aside the
agreement, asserting in court papers that “preventable deaths, suicides and
assaults continue to occur with alarming frequency in the hospitals.”
The department complained that the state had failed to address inadequate
treatment, excessive use of restraint and sedatives to control patients and
inadequate medical and nursing care. From May 2009 to January 2010, the
department sent the state 11 “emergency letters” that detailed, among other
events, a homicide at one hospital, rapes at two others, two suicides and
two other deaths deemed to be “questionable.”
Pannell put the case on hold in March when both sides suggested they might
reach an agreement. That led to the repeated meetings, in Atlanta and
Washington, and telephone conferences. Several times, participants said,
negotiators thought they could settle the case. “Despite these extensive
efforts,” the Justice Department said in court papers, “the parties have
failed to reach an agreement.”
In “A Hidden Shame,” a series of articles that began in 2007, the AJC revealed
that dozens of patients at Georgia’s psychiatric hospitals had died from
abuse, and that the state lagged in providing community-based mental health
treatment. Georgia created a mental health agency, and the U.S. Justice
Department opened an investigation. The AJC continues its coverage as