A statewide advocacy group for the mentally disabled filed a lawsuit on November 9 in federal court against the state Department of Mental Health over its refusal to comply with repeated records requests.
Disability Rights Mississippi filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. The non-profit is seeking injunctive relief from the court to force DMH to provide incident reports from its facilities. The agency says the group didn’t provide the needed probable cause to allow it access to those records.
These incident reports would provide DRMS a starting point to investigate any claims of potential patient neglect, abuse or injuries from staff and understaffing.
The group wants the court to order the Department of Mental Health to provide the incident reports and issue a decision that requires it to do so in the future, in addition to attorneys’ fees.
DRMS is designated by the governor as the protection and advocacy system for people with disabilities in Mississippi. Congress established the protection and advocacy system in 1975, which empowers these entities with the authority to investigate abuse and neglect against those with developmental disabilities and pursue legal remedies on their behalf. Under federal law, the group must have reasonable unaccompanied access to residents at all times to investigate abuse and neglect allegations.
The group said a growing number of complaints from residents and litigation by the U.S. Department of Justice over the over-institutionalization of the seriously mentally ill led it to begin a review of incident reports at each of the state’s mental health centers.
The DOJ sued the agency in 2016 for violating the 1999 U.S. Supreme Court Decision, Olmstead v. L.C., in which the court says individuals with mental disabilities have the right to live in the community rather than be institutionalized.
DRMS submitted a request for incident reports for the past 30 days on August 17. It also requested that the agency provide the incident reports on a regularly scheduled basis in the future.
The Department of Mental Health, through the state Attorney General’s Office, responded on August 27 with a refusal to supply the records.
The AG’s office met with the group, but on October 18, the records request was denied despite the acknowledgement by the AG’s office that DRMS has the authority to access incident reports. In their letter, the AG’s office said in their view that the authority of DRMS to access the incident reports would arise in two instances: Incidents reported to the system or probable cause to believe incidents occurred.
On October 15, after information provided anonymously by staff at various mental health centers and information obtained during DRMS’ regular monitoring of conditions at the facilities, the group issued investigative notice/probable cause letters to 10 of the facilities.
The Department of Mental Health refused the request through counsel on October 28. The AG’s office said in its response that, rather than present sufficient probable cause or complaint to the Department of Mental Health, the group issued 10 boilerplate letters to the facilities.
The response also said the group didn’t provide individualized probable cause for any of the facilities it sought incident reports.