The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 2, 2013

Our View: DHS report should be wakeup call

The Free Press

— In a blistering report, the Minnesota Department of Human Services has been called to task for basically violating its chief mission — “to provide essential services to the state’s most vulnerable residents.”

Problems detailed by the state’s legislative auditor found chronic management and safety failures, including a sharp increase in assaults involving either staff or residents and projected a rise in reported sexual incidents, self-injuries and threats.

It also found that the civil commitment process for residents, especially those at St. Peter Security Hospital, is flawed and keeping residents in treatment facilities longer than needed, in some cases for as long as 30 years. Minnesota does not have a regular judicial review process to evaluate residents as do other states. Hundreds of people with mental illness remain stuck in state facilities for months or years after they are ready to leave, and the audit report warned it could leave the state vulnerable to lawsuits.

The report found the St. Peter facility is “critically understaffed” with licensed psychiatrists for more than a year and that patients rarely receive therapy or meet with psychiatrists, even though many of the 400 patients are “mentally ill and dangerous” and considered to be among the most mentally ill residents in the state.

These findings apparently are no surprise to those involved. The state’s ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities, Roberta Opheim, said these are problems her office and others have been trying to get DHS to address for years. Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said these problems “persisted over a long period of time and it’s really time to solve them.”

And even DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said, “Every single recommendation in that report we agree with.” She said State Operated Services “has operated in a backwater for a long time” and was neglected by the Legislature and previous DHS commissioners. She hoped the report would provide that push to achieve significant changes.

Practically speaking, the state has been merely warehousing our most vulnerable citizens and tin cupping the expense needed to perform this function adequately.

Our legislators have no problem prioritizing. But unfortunately, those priorities appear to be set by the well-financed or by groups who can benefit legislators the most in their re-election. For instance, we have no problems dealing with such “urgent needs” as unionizing day care providers or building stadiums for the wealthy. They legislate under the auspices of helping the residents of Minnesota.

But they should feel shame in this flagrant negligence shown toward our most vulnerable. They have continually disregarded funding the services necessary for the mentally ill in our state, and not just those in our state-run facilities.

We lack funding for comprehensive care in our counties. We lack statewide crisis intervention training for law enforcement. We have sheriffs warning that jails continue to be used as treatment centers for the mentally ill. So the need is known. The solutions outlined. Lawmakers just lack the resolve.

We need legislative champions for the disenfranchised, not for the most powerful. We need a government that, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “exists for the interests of the governed, not for the governors.”