State sued over mentally impaired

Advocates say patients are kept in hospitals after they're ready to leave
Wednesday, April 06, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff

State psychiatric hospitals routinely and illegally confine hundreds of patients who are medically ready to leave, an advocacy group alleged in a federal lawsuit filed against the Department of Human Services yesterday.

The suit, filed by New Jersey Protection and Advocacy Inc., says these patients are kept in the hospitals because the state has no place else to treat them.

The group's attorneys credited acting Gov. Richard Codey with recently pledging to create more treatment services for patients outside institutions. But without a plan to "fix the problem by a specific date," New Jersey continues to violate the 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Olmstead, which states that people with disabilities must be allowed to live in the least restrictive setting possible, said Joseph Young the group's deputy director.

"Without a date, this will just limp along," Young said.

There are 2,300 people living in the state's six psychiatric hospitals, Human Services spokesman Ed Rogan said. Last month, 994 of these patients remained there on "conditional extension pending placement" because they had no place to live where they could continue receiving adequate outpatient care, he said.

These people deemed fit to leave remain confined "without the ability to control simple events in their life such as turning lights on and off, when they will lay down to rest, when they will eat or sleep and when and if they will have access to the outdoors and when they will shower," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit filed in Trenton federal court cites victims such as Carol C., a 60-year-old woman who was committed to a psychiatric hospital for 12 years, ending last month. "Less than one month after her commitment, the court determined that Carol could be discharged," according to the lawsuit. She remains hospitalized "on a restrictive and volatile ward where she endured assaults from other patients."

Brian B., 38, also remains hospitalized two years after his doctor and a judge said he was ready to leave. "But because the state has failed to find a community placement, Brian remains hospitalized on an extremely violent ward where his safety and security are in jeopardy," the lawsuit said.

Codey and Human Services Commissioner James Davy didn't comment directly on the allegations in the lawsuit, but said in separate statements that they shared a concern about the number of people who remain confined in state hospitals. They said there are plans to address the problem.

"Governor Codey is deeply concerned about individuals on (conditional extension pending placement) status as evidenced by his proposals for a $200 million housing trust fund and a major expansion in mental health services," Codey's spokeswoman Kelley Heck said in response to the lawsuit.

Davy said the number of patients retained in psychiatric hospitals "has been an issue of concern to us for some time." He noted that the department created nearly 500 new community placements for people with mental illness since the 2003 fiscal year.

The state also "greatly expanded an array of community-based mental health services, such as case management, substance abuse services, and programs of Assertive Community Treatment in which ... teams provide a comprehensive package of services to clients in the community," Davy said in a prepared statement.

The lawsuit asks the court to compel the state to provide community mental health treatment and housing assistance to people ready to leave hospitals. The advocacy group also asks the court to impose a cash penalty for every day a patient is committed unnecessarily.

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