Gracewood tries to ease fears

Integration worries families

A meeting Tuesday night between state officials and patients’ families and employees of the Gracewood campus of East Central Regional Hospital could be summed up like this: “Gracewood will still be here,” said Beverly Rollins, the executive director of the Division of Developmental Disabilities for the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

“That’s not what we’re hearing,” muttered Dale Beasley, whose daughter has been at Gracewood for 40 years.

The meeting, called by state Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Augusta, and the Augusta delegation, was to explain plans to move more Gracewood patients into the community.

The department reached a settlement in October with the U.S. Department of Justice over conditions in the state’s mental hospital system, which includes Gracewood. It calls for the state to move 150 patients a year out of Gracewood and into the community, “provided such placement is consistent with the individual’s informed choice,” according to the settlement agreement.

That could prove difficult to comply with in the case of Gracewood patients such as Erica Knighton, who doesn’t speak, suffers from seizures and has the functional capacity of “an infant,” said her mother, Ann, the president of the East Central Georgia Family Council.

Yet the family has been told that Erica pointed to a picture of a house and said she wanted to there, a story her mother finds ridiculous, and a staff member put a pen in Erica’s hand and helped her sign some papers.

“They’re (trying) to railroad people out,” Knighton said.

Rollins repeatedly stressed that it will be the family’s choice.

“We won’t violate their choice,” she said.

The settlement agreement calls for offering 150 patients a year the chance to move out and receive services in the community. By 2015, any remaining patients “shall be served in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.”

The families say it really means the closing of Gracewood. Rollins said that’s not the case.

“The thing about Gracewood is that there is always going to be individuals who will need that level of care,” she said. “So Gracewood will need to be around for that.”

Department spokesman Tom Wilson said that as other facilities close, their remaining patients likely will end up at Gracewood.

The state is attempting to comply with the 1999 Olmstead decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act required Georgia and other states to serve people in state institutions in the least restrictive setting whenever possible, including providing community services. Beasley said she struggled with the decision to put her daughter in an institution, and the only appropriate place for her daughter is at Gracewood.

“If my daughter could stay in a community setting, why would I have ever let her go to a state institution?” she said.

Future meeting planned

Many parents who turned up at Medical College of Georgia for the community forum were upset about the lack of notice and then not being able to ask questions. Augusta legislators and officials from the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities have promised to hold another forum, this time at Gracewood. It has not yet been set.