Editorial: Rowan girl left in limbo

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 10, 2008

The girl is 14 years old and mentally ill. She’s held in jail without treatment for more than two months because more appropriate facilities apparently can’t be found. A frustrated judge holds hearing after hearing in attempt to get someone to find help for her.
It sounds like a scenario from a third-world country rife with inefficiencies and bureaucratic lethargy and indifference. In reality, it happened here in North Carolina, according to an article in the News & Observer of Raleigh, and the girl is from Rowan County. She had been locked up since Jan. 28 at a detention center in Alexander County while officials bickered over who was at fault for the failure to find a suitable treatment facility for her.
It’s yet another example ó though a particularly egregious one ó of how easy it is for vulnerable clients to plummet through the cracks left by by the state’s bungled attempt at mental-health reform. That reform has been widely criticized for moving many public mental-health services away from regional centers to community-based private providers while failing to ensure that adequate resources at available. More recently, a state audit also revealed that some of the private firms contracted to provide mental-health services used poorly qualified staff and overcharged for questionable services. An attorney for the 14-year-old girl got it right when he put the blame on “systemic failures” ó failures that have occurred on multiple levels but have fallen most heavily on the indigent mentally ill or developmentally disabled.
While several agencies have been involved in the girl’s case, including Piedmont Behavioral Health Care and the Department of Social Services, an administrative law judge ruled that the buck ultimately stops with the state; it has the final responsibility to provide needed services for the girl. Judge Donald W. Overby last week ordered the state to move the girl to a safe and secure site where she can receive adequate treatment ó even if it means having to move her out of North Carolina.
“As a matter of law, as a matter of fact, and as a matter of human rights and fundamental decency,” his order said, “it is an abysmal failure of us as human beings and as a society … for this 14-year-old child to be illegally locked up in a juvenile detention center, and to have been locked up without treatment since Jan. 18, 2008, because the North Carolina mental health system has been unable or unwilling to locate treatment (at a proper facility).”
Gov. Mike Easley recently named former Raleigh city manager Dempsey Benton to lead the Department of Health and Social Services, with job No. 1 being cleanup of the mental health mess. One person can’t reform the reforms, and Benton will need help from the legislature and others who are committed to keeping this issue on the front-burner. But as the case of the 14-year-old Rowan girl illustrates, nothing’s likely to change until someone accepts responsibility and takes charge.