Sunday, March 5, 2006

In Georgia, Who's Next Door? You'd Be Surprised!

If the State of Georgia wanted to purchase the house next door and establish a group home for adults found Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity, would you be at the public meeting to object, find out the details, check out safety concerns or at least ask a few questions? Yes? Actually, no, you wouldn't. There would be no meeting. Apparently, the State is able to establish such homes without going through Planning and Zoning, without public hearing and entirely without your knowledge.

It sort of defies common sense, doesn't it? The State can simply plop one of these "Forensic Group Homes" where it pleases, and not only do they not have to get your permission: they don't even have to tell you. Based on my research, they don't even want you to know or ask questions. This program has flown very much under the radar.

One such home already exists in Bibb County and two more are planned. I'll lay odds the neighbors have no idea.

At one time, such individuals were typically housed and treated in hospitals, like Central State. Whether this change is the result of the move to de-centralize mental health services (translation: close hospitals) or the natural by-product of a cash-strapped state mental health system, I can't say.

What I can say is that the question here is not whether these folks are actually insane or whether they need treatment. Let's grant that they are and they do. The crimes they committed are real crimes. Sometimes, their actions caused the injury or death of someone.

The question is whether the public-and property owners-have a right to know and ask important questions about supervision, safety procedures, staff qualifications and program criteria. What steps have been taken to insure community safety?

The State began this program quietly and apparently by choice or necessity, has plans to expand. Here is an excerpt from a 2005 document obscurely posted on the Georgia State Department of Human Resources website:

Georgia is expanding efforts to address the needs of persons with mental illness who become involved in the criminal justice system, but the numbers needing services are far greater than the system has the capacity to serve. This is evidenced by the growing numbers of person with mental illness in local jails and state prisons, as well as by the number of individuals who have been found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI) or Incompetent to Stand Trial (IST) and who require treatment in one of state psychiatric hospital forensic units. MHDDAD is currently examining this issue and developing plans for community services that will enable some individuals to leave inpatient settings on conditional release, and also divert some individuals from hospitals who could be served in a secure community setting.

The full document is available at:

http://mhddad.dhr.georgia.gov/DHR-MHDDAD/DHR-MHDDAD_CommonFiles/MHBG05March.pdf

Unfortunately, it seems that "secure community setting" can be translated "house in your neighborhood."

A commitment to Safe Communities and protection of personal property rights means that (1) we need more dollars for mental health services in Georgia, and there is an appropriate role for hospitals in continuuminum of care, and (2) Neighbors ought to be informed about the intent and given an opportunity to comment when such a facility is planned.

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