A Hidden Shame: Death in Georgia’s Mental Hospitals
ATLANTA, GA (January 24, 2007) - Why would an 11 year-old, with an initial diagnosis of Autism be placed in an institution? Why did young Sarah's family feel institutionalization was their only choice?
The story of Sarah Crider (January 7), the first in an occasional series of articles by Alan Judd and Andy Miller, combined with the impact of several subsequent investigative reports about conditions in state hospitals, revealed extremes of unhealthy neglect, misdiagnosis, criminal acts and lethal outcomes that characterize a system that places Georgia in the bottom ranks of state mental health services.
Study after study proves people living in communities have better quality of life than those placed in institutions. Yet, when families feel desperate and alternatives for community supports and services are virtually nonexistent, they are too often forced to give in to the only option they have, to subject loved ones to the hazardous reality of an antiquated state hospital system. These facilities are centers of segregation, isolation and neglect. Everyone, especially our most vulnerable children and adults, need and deserve a place to belong, stable homes, loving families and communities where people can thrive.
Institutions are not substitutes for safe places. Sarah's is a classic example of what goes wrong when children are separated from the caring, watchful eyes of loved ones. She never should have been living in Georgia Regional in the first place.
Unfortunately, the authors revealed problems that have continued for many years. "Dangerous conditions in the hospitals arise from decades of disregard by public officials, chronic overcrowding, understaffing and public indifference."(1/7/07, Sarah Crider) Simply, people should not live in institutions. The United States Supreme Court ruled against the State of Georgia in 1999 and said that the Americans with Disabilities Act gave individuals the right to leave institutions and live in the community. Ten states have already closed their state run institutions and Georgia should follow their lead.
While Judd and Miller uncover disturbing, evening frightening conditions, the Governor's Council On Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) cautions lawmakers not to merely react by throwing money at the problem by allocating more funds to state hospitals. We need to focus on building and improving the community–based infrastructure and ensuring that direct support professionals in the community are paid a livable wage and receive the necessary training and support.
The authors referenced the Department of Human Resources, "Officials say they have been working to improve mental health care by shifting resources and patients, especially those with developmental disabilities, to community-based services." (1/7/07, Sarah Crider)
Community based services not only saves the state money, they save real lives and go a very long way in preventing the abuses enumerated in these reports.
GCDD and members of the Children's Freedom Initiative, a coalition of advocacy organizations, agency representatives and children's advocates created through the passage of HR 633, are working to move children out of state hospitals. The Children's Freedom Initiative promotes increased resources for families to care for loved ones at home. Such resources could have made all the difference in young Sarah's life.
We support DHR Commissioner BJ Walker's focus on building and balancing, "a whole system of care." A balanced system of care would prevent children from living in institutions. It would bring children and adults with developmental disabilities home to care that is appropriate for them; buoyed with medical and assistant supports based on properly diagnosed needs and monitored by professionals, family and friends.
When Georgia's citizens and their elected officials are given the facts and truly understand that there are responsible alternatives to institutions, indeed healthy, secure and cost effective alternatives, positive, life-saving change can occur. Media helps when it sheds light on the benefits of fully funded community-based services and supports that provide resources for individuals to stay in their communities and make it possible for families to stay together.
We fear there are far too many Sarah Criders in Georgia. We – Georgia citizens, legislators, family advocates and the media — must make it clear we want to move all individuals with developmental disabilities out and keep them out of institutions entirely.