Judge demands quicker action on Georgia-DOJ settlement deal

A federal judge Thursday told state officials and the U.S. Department of Justice to speed up efforts to reach agreement on improving Georgia’s system for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

Judge Charles Pannell
Judge Charles Pannell

The hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Charles Pannell came in the wake of a September report describing Georgia’s lack of progress in moving people with developmental disabilities out of state hospitals.

Independent reviewer Elizabeth Jones, who filed that critical report, told Pannell on Thursday that while Georgia has made great progress in improving services for people with serious mental illnesses, significant gaps remain for those with developmental disabilities.

By contrast, 14 states have closed all institutions for people with those disabilities, Jones testified.

Mary Bohan, a Justice Department attorney, said hundreds of people with developmental disabilities now living in communities need more support services. “Urgent steps are needed now,” she said.

Bohan and Jaime Theriot, an attorney representing Georgia, told the judge that they were in negotiations about proposed fixes in the state system. Pannell responded that he wanted the two sides to report back Jan. 6 on progress made in those talks.

“I want specifics,’’ said Pannell, who signed off on the original state settlement agreement with DOJ in 2010. He added that he would want the attorneys to list agreed-upon proposals as well as issues that remain unsettled.

Pannell cited the upcoming legislative session in January as an impetus for a quicker timetable. If the process goes swiftly, the Georgia General Assembly can still alter the state budget to reflect any needed extra funding before the session ends, he indicated.

Georgia, under the five-year settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, agreed to end all admissions of people with developmental disabilities to state psychiatric hospitals. It also promised in the 2010 pact that patients with developmental disabilities already in those hospitals would be moved to more appropriate settings by July of this year — the deadline for the agreement’s provisions to be met.

The settlement agreement also sought to improve care for Georgians with mental illness. Georgia agreed to establish community services and housing for about 9,000 people with mental illness, and to create community support and crisis intervention teams to help people with developmental disabilities and mental illness avoid hospitalization.

“There has been tremendous progress, particularly on the mental health side,’’ Bohan said.

But she said the state lags in transferring people with developmental disabilities from hospitals to community living situations. At the current pace, Bohan said, “it will take more than 10 years to allow everyone to be placed in a more integrated setting.”

Theriot noted that in the past five years, the state of Georgia has “attained some great accomplishments.’’ Almost 500 people have been transitioned from hospitals to community settings, and the state has closed three of its seven mental hospitals. She added that the state has a system in place for assessing the risks of individuals living in the community.

“We are committed to system improvement,’’ Theriot said. But she added, “Haste is not the key to sustainable [reform].”

An attorney for the Georgia Advocacy Office, Josh Norris, noted that the state has focused heavily on the Augusta region for improvements in the developmental disabilities system.

But addressing that one region, Norris said, “is not good enough. We’ve got to talk about the whole state.”

Jones, the independent reviewer, said a major mental health issue still to be resolved is the expansion of supported housing to more individuals.

She also said she had concern about people with mental illness who are in the court system.

Overall, Jones said, “there’s tremendous potential here.”

She cited a case of a woman with a developmental disability who had lived in a state hospital for half a century.

“This is someone who really languished in a state hospital for so many years,’’ Jones said. Now, Jones said, the woman is responding well to her community living situation.

More than 200 people are still institutionalized at an Augusta facility, Jones said. “The sense of urgency needs to be there for them as well.”