Thursday, November 30, 2006

Missouri Task Force Recommends Investigating Abuse, Neglect, and Deaths in State Mental Health Facilities

From the Springfield News Leader

The state should establish a board to review the deaths of adults in state mental-health facilities, a task force recommended Wednesday in a report that made no mention of improving fire safety.

The report comes days after a fatal fire at the privately run Anderson Guest House, a residential care facility licensed by the state Department of Mental Health.

The task force focused many of its 25 recommendations on improving the procedures for reporting abuse and neglect in state- operated facilities after a newspaper series detailed abuse problems in these facilities.

The eight-member panel crafted its recommendations upon gathering public testimony at hearings across the state, including one this summer in Springfield.

"We never heard one word from any of the 271 witnesses about fire safety," said Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, task force chairman.

The panel calls on the Department of Mental Health to:

- Pursue accreditation of its six habilitation centers and community providers that serve people with developmental disabilities

- Ensure staff are trained on identifying and reporting abuse and neglect

- Increase penalties for failure to report abuse and neglect

- Establish a mental-health fatality review board

- Allow access to nonconfidential information in substantiated abuse and neglect investigations

Gov. Matt Blunt formed the task force in June. In August, the panel heard southwest Missourians voice concerns about the safety of family members in state mental-health centers.

"These recommendations represent what Missourians told us they wanted for the state's mental-health system," Ron Dittemore, interim director of the Department of Mental Health and task force co-chairman, said in a statement.

Earlier this year, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported 21 deaths were linked to abuse and neglect at state-affiliated centers. The series revealed a flawed system of reporting and oversight.

State Auditor and U.S. Sen.-elect Claire McCaskill has called for more oversight for these facilities in a handful of state audits.

Though the Anderson Guest House holds a Department of Mental Health license, the state Department of Health and Social Services performs routine inspections.

That agency is supposed to inspect twice a year, but budget cuts have allowed for only annual reviews, a spokeswoman said.

Kinder said he expects the legislature will review the department's budget in the upcoming legislative session to restore funding for inspections.

Reviews of the Anderson Guest House in March 2006 and December 2004 revealed no deficiencies in fire safety. The nonprofit Joplin River of Life Ministries operates the center.

"This facility, as far as we know, was compliant with existing fire safety regulations," Kinder said. "We along with everyone else in state government will be looking and looking again at measures to improve fire safety."

One measure that took effect in August mandates an automatic sprinkler system for assisted living facilities. As a residential care facility, the Anderson Guest House does not fall under these regulations.

Advocacy groups have called for sprinklers to be installed in long-term care facilities. The one-story home had a fire alarm system but no sprinklers, which was not required by the state.

"The costs are enormous to install sprinklers in older buildings," Kinder said. "I'm not saying I'm against it. That's why it has not been done to date. As we learn more about the cause of this fire and how it spread, we can all review."

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