Georgia mental health chief says she will retire later this year

ATLANTA — The head of Georgia's mental health agency plans to retire this year after three decades of work in the state's juvenile justice, mental health and child welfare systems.

Gwen Skinner, who has faced underfunding and criticism since taking the helm of the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Addictive Diseases in 2004, announced Wednesday that she will leave in the fall.

Ms. Skinner remains well-regarded by some mental health advocates.

"I think Gwen Skinner is a person who has done an honorable job under horrific circumstances," Sherry Jenkins Tucker, executive director of the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "The budget shortfalls have been difficult."

Two months ago, Ms. Skinner told members of a mental health commission that Georgia's state psychiatric hospitals operate under a chronic deficit that contributes to staff shortages. She said the seven state-run hospitals have operated at an average annual budget deficit of $11 million for eight years.

She told the panel appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue that 39 percent of registered nurses' positions were vacant in September, with an annual turnover figure of almost one in three.

Ms. Skinner added that the occupancy rates in state hospital adult psychiatric units have typically been more than 100 percent since March 2005.

DHR Commissioner B.J. Walker said Ms. Skinner "has worked tirelessly during her time at DHR to strengthen our mental health system, and increase community-based services and support Georgia's adults and adolescents."

In August, Mr. Perdue announced a sweeping reorganization of state social services, a plan that would include a new agency dedicated to mental health care. The division is now under the Department of Human Resources.

Mr. Perdue said he will ask the Legislature to approve the reorganization this year.

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