Apr 052010

By Rhonda Cook, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 3/26/10
While the state is focusing on repairing its damaged mental health system, the deaf who need those services have been totally shut out of getting any help, according to a federal lawsuit.

The suit was brought by 25-year-old Gwinnett County woman and a 22-year-old Harris County man, but they ask the court to allow 350 other deaf people with mental [health needs] be included in the complaint as a “class.” The federal lawsuit says the state has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution because there is no system for matching those with mental disabilities with providers who are fluent in American Sign Language.

“How would you ever be able to be able to diagnose someone if you couldn’t communicate with them?” attorney Lee Parks said to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s a good example of a hole in the public health matrix that is heart rending.”

Tom Wilson, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, said the state agency was already developing a plan to address the special needs of mentally ill people who can communicate only in sign language.

“We do have a plan that we’ve developed to help enhance our services for people who have hearing impairments,” Wilson said. “We have done that on a one-to one basis.”

The state’s mental health system serves about 200 deaf people but the plan under development would be more comprehensive, Wilson said.

But it’s hard to set up a system to serve so few people with specialized needs and are scattered around the state,  he added. The process often requires an interpreter, who does not have training in the mental health field, to serve as a communications bridge between the patient and the health care provider, according to Wilson.

“What we’re trying to figure out is how to expand those services to even having counselors who sign themselves,” Wilson said.

According to the suit, Georgia fails to provide services that are “equally accessible to and culturally and linguistically appropriate for the deaf [who are now] excluded from the enjoyment and use of the benefits, services, programs and activities of public accommodations.”

The suit seeks to ensure that the deaf  “who are involuntarily committed to state mental health facilities receive adequate evaluation, diagnosis and treatment.”

When this suit was filed on March 1, Georgia was already trying to resolve another problem in its state mental health system. A 2007 U.S. Justice Department investigation found a flawed state hospital system was to blame for more than 100 suspicious deaths in five years, all first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Federal authorities and the state reached an agreement on ways to improve the state hospitals in January 2008, but the Justice Department said recently Georgia continues to fail to be in “compliance with federal law.”

The suit detailed the problems Renita Belton and Matthew Erickson, the plaintiffs, have faced since they were children. Both are deaf and mentally ill. It took years to diagnose their mental problems and still they could not secure services in Georgia from mental health care provoders who also were fluent in sign.

Initially,  Belton’s mother tried to get help when her daughter’s grades began to fall but the Gwinnett County school system was unable to diagnose her, according to the suit.

The mother turned to The Atlanta Area School for the Deaf but that organization lacked the financial resources to diagnose and treat mental disabilities, according to the suit.

Belton was sent to out-of-state programs after a “series of incidents of behavioral problems related to her mental illness,” the suit says. She was diagnosed with “major” depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and mitochondrial disorder. The suit said Belton required 24-hour “’awake’ supervision due to the risk that she poses to herself and to others,” according to the suit.

The state covered the cost of Belton’s out-of-state care until she “aged out” of the system on her 22nd birthday.

She then qualified for Medicaid to cover the cost of a “group home” but there were no programs in Georgia designed for those with hearing and mental health problems.

Erickson’s problems were similar.

After he was dismissed from the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf because of behavioral problems he too had to seek help out of state. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, Asperger syndrome and pervasive development disorder spectrum. Georgia also covered the out-of-state cost until he too “aged out.”

While the lawsuit progresses, Wilson said, the agency was still “looking at ways that will work well with people with [hearing] impairments and is doable for the taxpayers.”

– Thanks to NVRC, Fairfax