ALBANY, Ga. -- The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Disabilities has had a very active 12 months, and they don't anticipate things calming down anytime soon.
DBHDD Commissioner Dr. Frank Shelp, while on a road trip to Southwest Georgia, provided an update on how the department is doing and what it has in store for the future.
Perhaps the biggest item of concern is the department's ongoing dispute with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the safety of Georgia's seven state-run hospitals.
The Justice Department Civil Rights Division announced in January that it had filed for immediate relief to protect individuals in the psychiatric hospitals, at which time it contended there was imminent and serious threat of harm to patients. That motion sought appointment of a monitor to set binding targets and timetables for reducing the number of residents at the hospitals and expanding appropriate community-based services.
A year earlier, both parties entered into an agreement ensuring patients were served in appropriate integrated settings and that unlawful conditions were remedied.
"States responsible for the care of individuals living in state-run facilities have a duty to protect them from harm. Individuals in Georgia's hospitals are being subjected to a widespread pattern of violence and are not being protected from preventable deaths," said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general in charge of the Civil Rights Division, in a news release earlier this year. "We need quick action to protect these individuals."
The settlement agreement has since been set aside, and both parties have yet to reach an agreement on the degree and implementation of various programs. U.S. District Judge Charles A. Pannell Jr., who is overseeing the case, has requested information from the state as well as the Justice Department before deciding the nature and timing of a status hearing -- which both parties are currently in the process of doing.
In Shelp's sit-down with The Albany Herald, he said both sides want essentially the same thing for Georgia's behavioral health patients.
"The department has a plan it has continued to work through to develop community services and coordinate with all stakeholders, and it will continue to do so," the commissioner said. "We will continue forward with our plan. We hope the Justice Department will join us in this plan to come before legislators with a proposal and a sound clinical plan for patients."
The commissioner was in the area this week for a conference at the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving in Americus, which concluded Friday. He also paid a visit to state legislators, the Albany Girls, Inc. chapter and to Dougherty Superior Court Judge Stephen Goss' mental health court.
Goss' court ties into DBHDD's mission of helping those most in need, Shelp said.
"The mentally ill are often isolated and left vulnerable," he explained. "With appropriate services, people can achieve recovery, or at least enough of a recovery to be productive members of the community.
"(The mental health court) has the ability to work with the patient and their caregivers to give them an appropriate level of care, or to help either dismiss or reduce charges; a criminal record doesn't help you in an employment search, especially if it's not understood."
The DBHDD was created as part of the reorganization of the former Department of Human Resources, an arrangement that became effective July 1, 2009. Aside from addressing some issues at individual facilities, Shelp said the department has also been active since then in establishing partnerships with educational institutions such as the Medical College of Georgia, Emory University and Morehouse School of Medicine so these entities can play a role in management of the state's hospitals. "Our mission is to align the department with other agencies, or whoever shares our mission, and enter into material partnerships," he said.
The department has also been working to increase staff within its regional hospitals as well as engage community service boards in order to stabilize crisis management. DBHDD is also in the early stages of implementing telemedicine technology in its psychiatric facilities.
The state's seven hospitals include East Central Regional Hospital, Georgia Regional Hospital at Savannah, Georgia Regional Hospital at Atlanta, Southwestern State Hospital, Central State Hospital, West Central Georgia Regional Hospital and Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital.