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Albany area mental health officials say they're prepared for hospital closing

Federal officials mandated the closure of Southwestern State Hospital in Thomasville

ALBANY — Officials with the Albany Area Community Service Board reassured Dougherty County commissioners during their work session Monday that behavioral health patients who are being detained by law enforcement agencies as part of a “forensic population” would not be housed in the county’s mental health facilities.

That revelation came during Service Board Executive Director Kay Brooks’ report to the commission on how the federally-mandated closing of the Southwestern State Hospital mental health facility in Thomasville will impact the region.

“The forensic population (currently housed at Southwestern State) will be diverted to (facilities in) either Savannah or Columbus,” Brooks told the commission. “Anyone (from that population) in our area (seeking help) will be diverted there as well.

“One of the questions we’re getting is will there be more (potentially dangerous mental health patients) on our streets? I really don’t think so.”

Brooks said that while the Thomasville facility, which was cited after a federal investigation for “warehousing” patients, won’t actually close until Dec. 31, mental health officials in Albany and throughout an eight-county region of Southwest Georgia had been preparing for an increased population over the past two years after a federal ruling on Southwestern State was handed down.

“While they’re closing the Thomasville facility at the end of the year, they quit taking new patients some time back,” Brooks said. “The Albany area is already on the front line of receiving new (mental health) patients with the need for a higher level of care.”

The AACSB receives $65,000 of its $13.8 million budget from Dougherty County, but Brooks and other Community Service Board members said it’s important that the commission and the community understand the potential changes brought on by the closing of the Thomasville hospital. Brooks noted that improvements at Dougherty County’s 11th Avenue mental health facility offer greater accessibility to care in the region and that quicker intervention lessens the level of long-term care necessary.

Officials at the meeting said between 1,100 and 1,200 patients had sought help at the Dougherty County facility’s crisis stabilization center last year.

Dawn Benson, chairwoman of the Community Service Board, thanked the county for its efforts in providing mental health services in the region.

“Your support helps some of our most vulnerable citizens, and that in turn helps the entire community,” Benson said.

District 3 Commissioner Clinton Johnson, who serves as chairman of the county’s Recreation Committee, recommended that the commission approve a plan that would utilize Radium Springs-area greenspace property that was purchased by the county in 2008. Citizens Greenspace Advisory Committee Chairman Woody Hicks said the plan calls for a series of hiking/biking/horse riding trails on the “around 7 1/2 miles of property on both sides of the river,” which was previously the Radium Golf Course.

“(The committee’s) vision is to create a river park with a trail system,” Hicks told commissioners. “The land must be maintained in a natural state, and we had (University of Georgia officials) look at the land and develop a connecting trail system. The vision also calls for an overlook onto the Flint River.”

District 1 Commissioner Lamar Hudgins lauded the plan.

“That’s a beautiful piece of property,” he said. “I’m excited about this plan and look forward to moving this project forward.”

Also at Monday’s work session, the commission was asked to:

— Consider the purchase of new playground equipment for Robert Cross Park at a cost of $22,648;

— Give blanket renewal of alcohol licenses at establishments in the county;

— Accept drainage easements from three properties off Lover’s Lane Road;

— Consider appointment/reappointment of applicants to 15 boards and authorities, including the Albany-Dougherty Planning Commission, the city/county Hospital Authority and the county Library Board.