Meeting is called to solve DCF crisis
By CHRIS TISCH
Published December 21, 2006
At the urging of Gov. Jeb Bush, a legislative commission will hold an emergency meeting next month to provide up to $18-million in beds and services to help clear local jails of the mentally ill.
Wednesday's announcement comes after weeks of criticism aimed at the Department of Children and Families for allowing mentally ill inmates to languish in jails too long.
State law requires DCF to transfer them to hospitals within 15 days of a judge's incompetency order, but the agency has said beds are full and it doesn't have money for more.
Bush helped persuade the Legislative Budget Commission to meet in early January to deal with the crisis, said Bush spokeswoman Alia Faraj.
"They will enable DCF to address the needs of all persons currently waiting more than 15 days for services," she said. "The hope is the beds will come on line over the next few months."
The Legislative Budget Commission is comprised of members of the House and Senate with the power to change the state's annual spending plan. The emergency meeting is unrelated to a special legislative session next month called to deal with the state's homeowners insurance crisis.
The bed shortage conflict was centered in Pinellas County, where Judge Crockett Farnell last month threatened to jail DCF Secretary Lucy Hadi if she didn't move sick inmates out of the jail.
Farnell said he wanted to bring attention to the crisis. Bush accused the judge of throwing a judicial temper tantrum.
On Wednesday, those who work with the mentally ill welcomed funding for more beds.
"This is good news," Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said. "There's been some unnecessary suffering, but at least they're trying to fix the problem. But if Judge Farnell hadn't brought this to a head, this wouldn't have happened."
DCF budget figures obtained by the St. Petersburg Times this week show that the agency's initial budget requests have included nearly $100-million since 2002 to help thin the number of mentally ill inmates awaiting beds. But the agency received only a fraction of that amount.
In 2002, for instance, DCF wanted $14.5-million. But only about $5-million wound up in DCF's official budget requests to Bush. And the Legislature approved only $3.9-million of it.
An additional $31.6-million in DCF's initial budget request that year also did not make it into the agency's recommendation to the governor. Nor did nearly $44-million DCF wanted over the next three years.
Only once since 2002 did DCF ask specifically for more funding for more hospital beds, also called forensic beds. That money, nearly $7-million for 87 more beds, made it into the official request from the agency to the governor. Bush recommended it to the Legislature and it passed.
So how could nearly $100-million in DCF's initial budget wishes get whittled down to just $12-million in official requests from the agency to the governor?
A DCF spokesman said this week that agency officials withdrew their requests based on advice from the governor's office.
"They advise us on what they believe the Legislature will approve and what the Legislature won't approve," said agency spokesman Al Zimmerman.
Those decisions helped contribute to the current mental health crisis in which the average wait for a hospital bed ballooned to three months and the wait list swelled to more than 300 people, he said.
In that time, some mentally ill jail inmates have harmed themselves and others have burdened local jails, which are not prepared to contend with the mentally ill.
In addition to Farnell's actions, local jails and inmates sued DCF and defense lawyers statewide petitioned other judges to order DCF to comply with the law.
Bush said that the wait list problem has exploded in just the last 18 months and that state officials could not have predicted such a surge in mentally ill inmates.
"The population grew more quickly than what was expected," Faraj said.
But the DCF budget documents show that, as far back as 2002, agency officials noticed a growing problem and sought funding to solve it.
DCF officials believed that the bed shortage issue could have been prevented by bulking up community-based treatment that would reach people before they were declared legally incompetent or insane, Zimmerman said.
Those programs included doctors visiting and treating inmates in the jails, drug treatment and lower-cost residential programs.
Much of that was designed to divert at-risk inmates into less expensive alternatives to forensic beds, which cost more than $100,000 each per year. Community-based treatment can reach three to four people for that cost.
"The stronger the community health system, the fewer people we believe are going to end up in a forensic bed," Zimmerman said. "We believe that if we had received more funding ... it definitely would have assisted in the situation."
Faraj, Bush's spokeswoman, said that DCF's initial budget requests were "wish lists" and that staff from the governor's office offered advice - not marching orders - on suggested cuts.
Bush has pointed out that there are waiting lists in many areas of government service, including for the developmentally disabled and for drug addicts who need treatment.
"While we wish state government could fund every single program and every single service, we also have to balance those requests with living within our means," Faraj said. "We have to address the state's priorities."
Joseph P. George Jr., vice chairman of the Florida Substance Abuse and Mental Health Corp., said he wishes the programs had been funded but knows the governor has tough choices.
"I don't really point the finger of blame at the governor's office at all," George said. "They have other priorities that they have the difficult responsibility of dealing with."
Faraj said once it became apparent the wait list was spiking more than expected, staff members began looking for solutions, long before Farnell threatened to jail Hadi.
Dillinger doesn't believe that.
"They would have avoided this as long as they could because it's money for the sick and the poor, and that's not where they want the money to go," he said. "There's no lobby for these people who are suffering."
Chris Tisch can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 982-2359.
[Last modified December 21, 2006, 09:32:18]
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