Task force wants more oversight of state-run homes

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS -- A state government task force has released a draft report of 20 ways to better protect Missouri's mentally disabled residents in state and private homes.

The Missouri Mental Health Task Force's draft report Wednesday recommends stricter laws, more oversight and less secrecy to ensure their safety.

The group's chairman, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, said the final report will be voted on Nov. 6, and will include "a comprehensive list of needed reforms that reflect the best practices in other states."

The final report will go to Gov. Matt Blunt, who formed the task force in June in response to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation that found failures in a system that was supposed to ensure proper investigations of suspected mistreatment of the 11,000 mentally retarded and mentally ill residents in full-time care overseen by the state.

Deaths brought to light

The investigation revealed 21 deaths, 323 injuries and almost 2,000 other incidents tied to abuse or neglect by caregivers from 2000 through 2005, and that the state didn't follow its policies and state law in response.

The task force immediately ordered state agencies to help the Department of Mental Health do internal investigations, and it required the department to notify the State Highway Patrol of any deaths or alleged assaults.

The state has hired more investigators to reduce a backlog of cases.

Among the task force recommendations:

* Tougher criminal penalties for abusers

* Fewer, but more focused, internal reviews

* Outside reviews of state-run centers

* Fines for poorly run private facilities

* More training and pay for caregivers

The draft report also calls for a toll-free phone number for reporting suspected abuse, and for the public to have access to completed investigative reports, so long as patients' biographical information is not revealed.

The fate of Bellefontaine Habilitation Center in north St. Louis County remains unknown. Blunt has said he plans to close it, but later said he would reconsider it if the task force said so.

Tougher sanctions

The draft report doesn't specifically mention Bellefontaine, but it does say the state should keep open centers for mentally retarded residents so long as there's a need for them. The report said the state should pursue outside accreditation for such centers.

The draft report also calls for more reviews by state inspectors and tougher sanctions for privately run facilities that break the rules.

Private facilities house most residents needing full-time care. State auditors have found that the state hasn't properly logged abuse in group homes.

The draft report also suggests the Department of Mental Health follow 23 recommendations made by a separate state body -- the Mental Health Commission -- two months ago.

"We need to improve our services every day," the department's interim director, Ron Dittemore, told the Post-Dispatch. "And we are working hard to do that."

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