Originally created 10/13/03

Mental health agency employee accused of stealing from clients



ATHENS, Ga. -- An employee of an Athens-based mental health agency has been accused of stealing from her patients, two years after the state first took corrective measures against the agency's misuse of client funds.

Mary Hall, a residential supervisor and 14-year employee at Advantage Behavioral Health Systems, resigned Oct. 3 amid allegations she stole about $5,500 from her clients. Hall assisted mentally handicapped people, who lived in their own apartments.

Advantage helps manage its clients' money by using a voucher system for paying bills. But to keep the system "consumer friendly," supervisors are allowed to authorize additional checks for discretionary spending on an as-needed basis, said the agency's executive director Terry Tellefson.

Hall allegedly stole the money through those additional checks, Tellefson said.

A state investigation of the allegations is currently under way, and the agency also is looking into ways to further tighten controls over clients' money.

Athens-Clarke police said they were awaiting the outcome of the state Department of Human Resources probe before deciding whether to launch a criminal investigation.

Advantage, which provides mental health and substance abuse services in Athens-Clarke and nine other northeast Georgia counties, nearly lost its contract to provide mental health services last year after receiving failing grades on state and outside evaluations of the agency's performance. The reports cited recurring problems, such as low employee morale, bad record-keeping and sometimes inadequate client care.

In 1998, an employee was arrested for taking out life insurance on some of the agency's mentally retarded clients in Elbert County, then pocketing the payout when the clients died. The worker later pleaded guilty to fraud.

An October 2001 audit by DHR, which chided Advantage for a lack of "clear accountability of the handling of consumer funds," led to improvements in the system, such as issuing photo identification cards for clients for when they cashed their checks.

Advantage officials said it appeared in Hall's case that she cashed client checks at a private cash-checking business that did not require identification.

Conoly Hester, chairwoman of the Community Services Board that oversees the agency, said she was satisfied a proper system for managing client funds was in place, but that people intent on committing fraud or theft will usually find ways to circumvent safeguards.

"This is a constant thing we've got to keep checking," Hester said.