Advocates React After State Suspends Transfer of Developmentally Disabled

Advocates continue to support moving people with developmental disabilities from state hospitals into the community. That’s despite two deaths that occurred after individuals with developmental disabilities were placed into community settings shortly after a state hospital closed in Thomasville.

The two deaths were mentioned in a March report by Elizabeth Jones, an independent reviewer. The reviewer said the state needs better oversight of those who are medically fragile.  Jones also said in her March report that the state has shown “good faith, energy and diligence’’ as it works to meet the terms of the settlement.

The state would not say how the patients died, but officials suspended the transfer of individuals with developmental disabilities for a second time as they assess their needs. Advocates say they’re saddened by the deaths. Talley Wells is the director of the Disability Integration Project at Atlanta Legal Aid.

“There’s no question these are real tragedies.”

But Wells said he supports the state’s decision to temporarily stop the transfer of those with developmental disabilities. The transfers from state institutions to community settings are part of a settlement between Georgia and the U.S. Justice Department, which must be met by July of 2015. As part of the settlement 9,000 developmentally disabled and Georgians living with mental illness are supposed to receive services in a community setting rather than a state hospital.

“I have a lot of faith, despite what we’ve heard most recently that the leadership is taking everything very, very seriously.”

Wells said to ensure problems don’t occur in the future, the community needs large numbers of healthcare workers who can take care of and support those with fragile health needs.

“That’s going to take investment of money, but it’s also going to take recruiting. It’s going to take all of the work to ensure we’ve got the best professionals in the community.”

Eric Jacobsen heads the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities. He also said he agrees with the state’s decision to temporarily halt transfers.

“I think they should resume the transfers when they feel comfortable that they have the right providers in place to make sure those folks are safe and are getting what they need.”

But he said those with developmental disabilities are in just as must risk for potential harm in state facilities, and he’s hopeful the transfers will soon resume. To ensure better care for those with disabilities, Jacobsen said the state should focus on provider capacity and quality services in the community.

“Funding is part of the conversation, but it’s also setting standards and holding those providing services to high levels of standards around quality and making sure they have on their staff the right people to provide care.”

Jacobsen said it’s important to move individuals with developmental disabilities into community settings because, “If you value an individual, if you value their life, their life is about being in the community with everybody else. They have gifts and talents like everyone else, and they need to share that with the rest of us.”

  The commissioner for Georgia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, Frank Berry, told WABE the department suspended the transitions until it gets a better understanding of what it’s going to take in the community to serve those with developmental disabilities.

Currently, there are nearly 300 people with developmental disabilities living in state institutions.

The commissioner would not say how the deaths occurred but said they both had complex medical issues.  

State officials have also said Georgia has met nearly all its goals on the mental health side of the agreement.   Dr. Thom Bornemann is the mental health director for the Carter Center. He says the Center is pleased with state efforts to transfer those living with mental illness from state institutions into community settings. Bornemann said, “It does look the service array is appropriate and the settlement is being honored on the mental health side…I think the right kind of services were set up to receive people who might have significant transitional needs as they reenter the community.”

Meanwhile, the assistant commissioner for Georgia’s Division of Developmental Disabilities is returning to his previous job as director of hospital operations. The department has appointed an interim assistant commissioner and is undertaking a nationwide search for his replacement. State officials say the departmental changes are not in response to the recent deaths but are part of its vision of building capacity in local communities and ensuring the provision of high-quality care in the community and in state hospitals.