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NAMI Calls for Federal Investigation of Georgia State Hospitals

Deaths, Abuse, Neglect, Poor Medical Care Reported by Atlanta Journal Constitution

January 17, 2007

Washington, D.C. — The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the nation’s largest grassroots organization representing individuals with serious mental illnesses and their families, has called for a federal investigation of neglect, abuse and poor medical care in Georgia’s state hospital system.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, NAMI executive director Michael Fitzpatrick advised that “Federal action is not only appropriate, but imperative” under the civil rights law that protects institutionalized persons.

The request is based on the investigative series, “Hidden Shame” published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution over the past week in which 115 consumer (patient) deaths over five years in the state’s seven regional hospitals were found to have occurred under suspicious circumstances.

“I cannot emphasize enough the outrage of NAMI members,” Fitzpatrick said. “The Georgia scandal represents an especially egregious, systemic violation of civil rights.”

In past cases, the Department of Justice’s intervention has served as a catalyst for significant improvements in hospital conditions in states such as Alabama, Vermont, and Virginia.

“The Department’s expertise and experience, formal findings, and if necessary litigation, will play an important, constructive role in working to achieve desperately needed reforms,” Fitzpatrick said.

Atlanta Journal Constitution investigative series:

http://www.ajc.com/search/content/health/stories/2007/01/04/0107meshabout.html


The text of NAMI’s letter to the U.S. Attorney General follows: 

The Honorable Alberto Gonzales
Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
Washington, D.C. 20530

Dear Attorney General Gonzales:

On behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the nation’s largest organization representing people with serious mental illness, I respectfully request that pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutional Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. 1997 et seq., the Justice Department immediately begin an investigation into conditions in the State of Georgia’s seven state hospitals.

This request is based on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s investigative series which began on January 7, 2007 and continued this week. The newspaper has determined that 115 out of 364 consumer (patient) deaths over five years should be considered “suspicious.” Its study of records has revealed “a pattern of neglect, abuse, and poor medical care in the seven state hospitals, as well as a lack of public accountability.”

The newspaper found cases in which:

  • Consumers die from lack of emergency treatment or proper medical care
  • Consumers die under physical restraints
  • Consumers die from suicide
  • Consumers die choking on food, vomit or foreign objects, or by aspirating them into their lungs
  • Employees beat consumers with aluminum pipes
  • Doctors widely prescribed sedatives solely to maintain order rather than for therapeutic reasons

Conditions at the hospitals put the health and safety of both employees and consumers at risk. The average occupancy rate is approximately 110% and staff to consumer ratios range as high as 1:40 or more. In 2002, the newspaper reports, federal regulators ordered the Atlanta hospital to correct overcrowding and treatment problems, but four years later, found that many of the same problems continue to exist.

I cannot emphasize enough the outrage of NAMI members to such conditions. President Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health already has described the national mental healthcare system as a fragmented “system in shambles,” and almost every day, NAMI members are touched by individual tragedies—but the Georgia scandal represents an especially egregious, systemic violation of civil rights.

In past cases, the Department of Justice’s intervention has served as a catalyst for significant improvements in hospital conditions in states such as Alabama, Vermont and Virginia. In light of the magnitude and scope of the problems now being exposed in Georgia, the Department’s expertise and experience, formal findings, and if necessary litigation, will play an important, constructive role in working to achieve desperately needed reforms.

Federal action is not only appropriate, but also imperative.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Michael J. Fitzpatrick, MSW
Executive Director
                                                           

# # #


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