4 offer testimony at Cape mental health meeting

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

A task force reviewing Missouri's troubled mental health system must provide short-term corrections while also recommending the best long-term actions to strengthen the program, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said Monday.

The most important issue, Kinder said during a joint interview with interim department director Ron Dittemore, was safety of the people under the care of the Department of Mental Health.

Dittemore, a long-time administrator who came out of retirement to lead the department, agreed. The most important long-term goal, he said, is to achieve "cultural change with the Department of Mental Health. We exist for one reason -- to take care of the patients."

The Missouri Mental Health Task Force was created to examine the entire range of department programs and issues following an expose by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The newspaper reported more than 2,200 incidents, including 323 injuries and 21 deaths since 2000 tied to abuse or neglect of residents whose care is overseen by the state.

The most dramatic case involves a 36-year-old man who died six days after being given a bath in scalding water. The St. Louis County Medical Examiner has ruled that the death of Rudy Wallace was a homicide.

One long-term step advocated during testimony in the task force's hearings last week, Kinder said, is better pay. "Our pay scale is low and needs to be improved to attract and keep good people," he said.

The task force will look at neighboring states to determine if that testimony is accurate, Kinder said.

The Department of Mental Health operates 28 facilities statewide, contracts with numerous providers and gives assistance to 170,000 Missourians with mental diseases or developmental impairments.

The hearing in Cape Girardeau lasted less than an hour, with only four people offering testimony. Those taking part included the father of a developmentally disabled man who died earlier this year, the mother of a boy waiting for an autism evaluation and two representatives from private facilities in the area.

Floyd Cressey of St. Louis, whose son died June 10 at age 48 in the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center in St. Louis, said he believed the facility always took good care of his son.

But the facility, which Gov. Matt Blunt has slated for closure, is underused, Cressey said. The solution isn't to close Bellefontaine, Cressey said -- the best course is to make improvements and keep it open.

Past recommendations for improvements have gone unheeded, Cressey told the panel. "We have had enough hearings," he said. "What we need is action from everyone, including the legislature."

Michelle Hoffmeister of Farmington didn't echo Cressey's praise for the care provided by the department. Big cases involving abuse and neglect grab the headlines, she said, but small slights and delays in treatment can do serious harm, she said.

Hoffmeister taped a picture of her 8-year-old son to the podium as she began to speak. Her son is in the third grade, she said, but spends most of his day in special education because of his developmental disabilities.

Her ambitions for her son are to "enjoy life to the fullest and be as happy as he can be. He just needs some help along the way," Hoffmeister said.

Hoffmeister said she was recently told her son may be autistic. But she was also told she must wait seven months for an evaluation.

"Abuse and neglect take on many different forms," she said. "He needs help with his problems of social interaction sooner rather than later."

Melinda McCulley of Cape Girardeau, who operates a 20-bed residential care facility in Scott City, said department rules and payment levels hamper her attempts to provide top-flight care.

And Barbara Norton, a registered nurse at Shannon's Neighborhood in Perryville, said she sees few problems in the system from her point of view.

Shannon's Neighborhood has accepted several patients from Bellefontaine and Norton said she believes they have adjusted well. "They are just like family," she said.


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