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Report: Mass. Budget Cuts Weaken Safety Of Mental Health Staffers

By Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press
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Massachusetts State House in Boston (credit: AP)

Massachusetts State House in Boston (credit: AP)

BOSTON (AP) — A task force formed after the slaying of a mental health counselor is blaming years of budget cuts for undermining Massachusetts’ publicly-funded mental health system and forcing some staff to work under unsafe conditions.

The task force released a set of 17 recommendations Thursday in the 42-page report it said is intended in part to improve the safety of workers at state facilities.

Among the recommendations are a significant increase in spending over the next five years in the mental health system and an increase in the number of beds and services available for those suffering from mental illness.

The report also recommends giving all those who provide direct care in mental health facilities with “a reliable way to rapidly summon assistance when needed, such as an electronic alarm.”

The task force was appointed after the body of 25-year-old Stephanie Moulton was found stabbed in Lynn earlier this year. A resident of the North Suffolk Mental Health Association facility where Moulton worked has been charged with her death.

The report paints a picture of a mental health system straining under years of budget cuts, which have led to a breakdown in communication, increasing caseloads of people with more acute needs and the fostering of a system that is “unable to consistently provide more intensive services when needed.”

That has led to situations where staff counselors and others are required to work in “conditions that do not provide for adequate safety,” according to the task force chaired by retired Judge Paul Healy and psychiatry professor Dr. Kenneth Appelbaum.

“None of this should come as a surprise. In recent years, DMH has undergone significant changes in the context of repeated budget cuts,” the report said. “Some past practices that are no longer in place served to increase the cohesion of the community system, the continuity of care, and safety.”

Department of Mental Health Commissioner Barbara Leadholm said she’s reviewing the report. She said that although the state has had to make difficult budget cuts in recent years, she’s not convinced that those cuts have resulted in increased risks for workers.

“Honestly I would say I disagree,” she said. “To me, the cause and effect is not that simple.”

Leadholm, who appointed the task force, said she’s also not convinced that a scarcity of beds has strained the system or led to situations where people may have been released before they were ready.

“We do not discharge people sooner than they should be discharged,” she said. “It’s always easy to say `Could you have given someone more services?”‘

Massachusetts did lose 120 psychiatric beds when it closed a state hospital last year, Leadholm said.

Both Leadholm and the members of the task force agreed that most individuals in the state’s mental health care system do not pose a threat.

“Our efforts therefore focused more on the needs of those few individuals who present a high risk of violence, rather than on the many who do not,” the task force wrote.

The report was prompted by the death of Moulton, whose body was found in a church parking lot in Lynn in January.

Police say Deshawn James Chappell, who was a resident at the group home where Moulton worked, stabbed the Peabody, Mass. resident repeatedly in the throat, piercing her jugular vein and carotid artery.

The 27-year-old Chappell pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.

After a March hearing that included testimony from a court clinician who interviewed Chappell, Judge Frank Gaziano committed Chappell to Bridgewater State Hospital.

Moulton’s parents, Kim Flynn and Robert Moulton have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the directors of the agency that runs the facility, two doctors and Chappell.

Kim Flynn and Robert Moulton are seeking unspecified damages for the death of their daughter.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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