MHAP’s letter to the U.S. Dept. of Justice

Jonathan M. Smith, Special Litigation Section
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

Dear Mr. Smith and colleagues,

Supporters of our organization appreciate your letter to Attorney General John Kroger, dated November 17, noting the Department of Justice’s intent to enlarge the scope of the ongoing investigation of the Oregon State Hospital, to include community-based services for persons with a diagnosis of mental illness.

You have turned over a large rock.

We confirm the need to examine public, community-based mental health services. Our experience – that of patients, families and friends of patients, of academics, researchers, attorneys, and clinical providers – is these services are insufficient and starved by decades of underfunding.

Oregon’s community-based mental health services are funded with federal money channeled through the state and county, and for the most part delivered by private nonprofit organizations. We have seen a number of causes for their strangulation: multiple levels of bureaucracy; stigma which commonly holds public mental health services are a waste of public dollars; lack of political will and representation; ignorance; and willful cruelty.

Your investigation may elicit truth and cause a whole-cloth reconsideration of decades of budgetary imprudence which, often, has led to jail, institutions and death for our friends. In light of history, however, we are deeply concerned this will not occur, and we wish to offer suggestions toward a result that will genuinely achieve justice. Our suggestions require a shift in tactic to make your investigation more transparent, more inclusive and more empowering for persons with a diagnosis of mental illness.

First, we suggest greater transparency on your part, so citizens of Oregon can know the effect of your actions.  Create and maintain a public forum, perhaps a web site, where documents of all sorts can be held and accessed by the citizens you intend to serve.

Second, we submit that your investigation must be inclusive and informed by all injured parties. Survey, collect and include anecdotal data from persons most affected by your actions – not only persons presently incarcerated at the Oregon State Hospital, but those with a diagnosis of mental illness who are at risk of being confined to the hospital, as well as their friends and family members.  These are the individuals being harmed, or at risk of being harmed, and they can provide useful information and powerful motivation for your work.

Finally, we suggest a move toward empowerment. Broaden your scope, from your present focus on the State of Oregon’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities act, to one that includes the wider issue of civil liberties for persons diagnosed with mental illness.

All three of these elements are grounded in our belief – one we hope you share – that real justice involves the real lives of real people. Unfortunately, since the initial announcement of your investigation of the Oregon State Hospital, those most in need of the services provided by the hospital have not been, as far as we can tell, contacted by your office in any systematic manner; nor have the citizens of Oregon been included and informed except through the media.  We encourage you to talk with people affected, not just to review data created by the bureaucracy you wish to amend, to discover the issues, focus your investigation, and make your results truly meaningful.

Again, we applaud your undertaking. Without the foregoing elements, however, we doubt it will lead to justice, and may only serve as an instructive exercise to your successors.

We hope you will act on these suggestions, and continue to “stand as advocates for the American people to protect the American way.” (U.S. Dept. of Justice Strategic Plan, FY 2007-2012)