BILL MINOR: Children's mental health care drives federal lawsuit

JACKSON – Mississippi is evidently skating on thin ice of violating federal laws under its mental health system for children that cycles thousands of children with behavioral or emotional disorders through institutions rather than providing federally-mandated community-based services that keep mentally ill children near their families.
These are some of the allegations raised recently in a federal lawsuit filed against the state by the Southern Poverty Law center’s Mississippi Youth Justice Project. It seeks to require the state to invest more in community-based services for mentally ill children instead of spending funds to isolate them from their families in various institutions.
In some institutions, the suit alleges, youngsters 13 to 15 years old are kept in solitary confinement and in others, when parents visit, they can only see youngsters behind glass panels. No hugs allowed.
The SPLC lawsuit makes it clear that Mississippi’s failure to provide federally-mandated, medically necessary services for children with mental illness is an invitation for the federal government to clamp down for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Medicaid program under Title XIX of the Social Security Act which require public entities to provide needed diagnostic and treatment services to correct or ameliorate health or mental conditions.
Thus far, the state has shown no indication that it intends to comply with the complaints raised by the mental health advocates in their lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for Southern Mississippi.
“Mississippi’s system of mental health is so weak and uncoordinated that most children are released from facilities with little or ineffective follow-up community care,” states the lawsuit. Further, according to the complaint, “it can take months to get an appointment from a community mental health centimeter, and when services finally arrive, they consist of little more than minimal medication management and outpatient counseling.”
A recent report by the Mississippi Health Policy Center estimated that there are 53,000 to 83,000 children diagnosed with mental illness in Mississippi, said SPLC staff attorney Vanessa Carroll, the lead attorney in the case.
The state’s position seems to have been weakened by two state legislative studies in 2008 which found that Mississippi is one of few states failing to join a national trend that favors mental treatment for children outside of institutions. The Legislative PEER committee study showed that Mississippi ranked second nationally in per capita spending for institution-based treatment mental health care. Nationally states devote 70 per cent of mental health expenditures to community-based mental health care, compared to only 44 per cent in Mississippi.
The suit cites the experience of J. B., a 17-year-old boy from Grenada County as an example of how children wind up in the hands of the state Department of Human Services. Spending 13 years in the foster care system, he grew up in a variety of hospitals and institutions after experiencing trauma and abuse in his early years.
It points out that J. B. had never received intensive home and community-based services and therapy that he needs and is entitled to receive under federal law. His prospects after being released from the community mental center where he now enrolled in a job-training program are not promising, with the likelihood of returning to the system as an adult.
Mary Troupe, director of the Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities declared that without adequate services and follow-up after discharge, “we are failing our children.”

Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at

Bill Minor

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