Lawmakers say fixing abuse and violence in mental hospitals will take time, money

Published Dec. 16, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — More money and major reforms will be needed to stem violence and abuse in state mental hospitals portrayed in a yearlong investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune, state lawmakers say.

The investigation — "Insane. Invisible. In danger." — shows how violence plagues the state mental hospitals, where $100 million in budget cuts and years of neglect have put patients and staff in danger. Further, reporters found cases where details about patient deaths were sealed by the department, even when employees made mistakes, or delayed calling 911.

"I think they really bring into focus some of the tragedies that have happened in the system, and you can't help but be very upset by reading them and seeing the videos, especially. It's very, very distressing," said Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, chair of the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee. "There are funding issues and appropriations issues that need to be addressed."

Not every member of the Legislature is optimistic that changes will happen soon, however. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said it could take even more tragedy to force lawmakers into action.

"The legislative body responds to the squeaky wheel," he said. "Unfortunately, it may not be until something worse happens. You see a woman getting stabbed in the eye and that is pretty bad. But the way it works up here, it might not change until an orderly gets killed. That's how these people work."

On Tuesday, when John Bryant, DCF assistant secretary for substance abuse and mental health, came to the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee to present about the state's mental health system, just one lawmaker asked a question about the new reports.

Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, referred to "the articles" and asked why the state has seen such an increase in the number of people sent to state hospitals after charged with a crime and found mentally incompetent to stand trial or found not guilty because of insanity.

Three-fifths of the state hospitals' beds are taken by such cases, called "forensic" cases, Bryant said. This leaves just 40 percent for civil commitments.

"I think to a large extent, the increase in forensic clients has a lot to do with the absence of community services where they reside," Bryant said.

Peters, who is the subcommittee's vice chair and has visited mental health facilities across the state, sees that as a problem as well. She said the key is to have more people across state and local government thinking about mental illness, bringing together schools, prisons, law enforcement and health officials.

Even if the Legislature does increase access to preventive mental health services, it's a reform focused on the long term. Training local law enforcement to recognize the mentally ill and send people to get treatment rather than taking them to jail in some cases takes time, too.

Yet reporting by the Times and Herald-Tribune found pressing problems at the hospitals: Violent patients roaming hallways unaccompanied, suicides and deadly attacks by other patients, and a lack of state regulations.

Harrell says she will be pushing for minimum standards in the facilities.

Gov. Rick Scott has signed an executive order calling for better coordination of mental health care in the state.

And Peters says the best thing that can be done quickly to help the hospitals is to fix the staffing shortfalls.

"We have to ensure staffing is adequate, but that being said, we have a significant problem with workforce shortages, and I don't know if everyone truly understands," she said.

She said there aren't enough people who want to work in the hospitals, calling it a "crisis" of staffing. Lawmakers face a hard battle, however, to set aside more money in the state budget — either for additional staff or higher pay to entice existing employees to remain in Florida.

State budget cuts caused the problems to begin with, Latvala said. "We'd rather save you 70 cents on your cellphone bill rather than put that money in the budget for people who truly need it," he said. "It's appalling."

Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.