Georgia has kept 44-year-old Lucretia Felder in state institutions, from foster care to a prison hospital, for 42 years. On Friday, a judge gave the state 90 days to find her a home.
Felder, whose case was the focus of a recent investigative story in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, will live alone but will have full-time caregivers. Medicaid, the government health care program for the poor and people with disabilities, will pay for Felder’s care; Felder has an intellectual disability and has been diagnosed with a mental illness.
Her lifetime odyssey through institutional care culminated Friday in a courtroom in Milledgeville. After a brief hearing, Superior Court Judge William A. Prior told the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to “move with deliberate speed” and place Felder in her own home within, at the most, three months.
In the meantime, Felder will remain in a psychiatric unit at Columbia Regional Care Center, a prison hospital in South Carolina. Georgia sent Felder to Columbia in 2007 after Prior declared her mentally incompetent to stand trial for assaulting workers at Central State Hospital, the state psychiatric institution in Milledgeville.
Felder is one of about 200 people with intellectual disabilities who remain in state institutions eight years after Georgia promised a federal court it would overhaul its mental health system. Felder is among the three dozen forensic patients with disabilities, deemed unable to defend themselves on criminal charges.
Lawyers for the behavioral health agency did not object to Prior’s order. Nor did they explain why the state kept Felder in the prison hospital for more than a decade without seeking a judge’s permission each year, as the law requires. The Journal-Constitution reported last month that Felder had not appeared in court since 2006, even though a handwritten note in her case file reminded lawyers she was supposed to have an annual hearing.
District Attorney Stephen Bradley said in court Friday that an earlier attempt to move Felder into a community setting had fallen apart. He described Felder, who has a history of aggressive and, at times, violent behavior, as being in “a very difficult placement situation.” She allegedly injured three Central State workers during separate altercations in 2005.
“She was a substantial handful,” Bradley said. “She was violent and difficult.”
But more recent psychiatric evaluations have found Felder far less prone to outbursts. Doctors at the prison hospital have said she no longer requires institutional care.
She has been in state custody since she was 2, when social workers removed her from her family’s home because of abuse.
As the judge signed a document ordering Felder’s release, he offered her a chance to speak for herself — a courtesy he didn’t afford her 12 years ago before sending her a psychiatric facility and banishing her from Milledgeville.
Felder stood before the judge in a patterned green dress and green cardigan, one of the few outfits she occasionally gets to wear instead of hospital scrubs.
“I want to live my life on the outside,” she said. “I want to work. I want to do good and hold my head up and do the right thing.”
“Ms. Felder,” the judge said, “we’re all hoping that happens for you.”