Thursday, May 27, 2010

Georgia lawsuit says state services unavailable to deaf, mentally ill people

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Gail Belton thought she had found a solution to caring for her 26-year-old daughter -- a deaf, mentally ill woman.

The Snellville woman had hired a company to provide around-the-clock staff for Renita Belton, but that firm lost its state certification earlier this month. Now there is a patchwork system in place while Gail Belton looks for a more permanent fix.

Gail Belton's daughter is one of two deaf, mentally ill people who filed a class-action lawsuit in March against Georgia for not providing them the same services given to 177,000 other people with mental illness, development disabilities or addictions. The federal lawsuit comes as the state is negotiating to settle another one filed by the U.S. Justice Department, which had said Georgia's mental health system was rife with abuse and neglect.

But even though that suit is being settled, Gail Benton told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Georgia isn't helping 350 mentally ill adults who also are deaf.

“The state’s not really taking care of my daughter. They aren’t providing a mental health service they provide others,” Gail Belton said. “There are supports for people who are hearing. Why aren’t there supports for people who are deaf?”

Renita Belton's federal lawsuit against Georgia asks for equal services.

"There are no services in Georgia," Gail Belton said.

Tom Wilson, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, said the state was already working on a plan to resolve the Beltons' issues when the suit was filed. He said the agency also is working with the Beltons on a stop-gap option until a new provider is found to replace Atlanta-based Bj&w Personal Care Home Inc., which lost its certification because the state said it had flawed record-keeping and other service deficiencies.

Wilson denies the state is indifferent to the problems Renita Belton and others with similar disabilities have.

"We have regional offices and the regional offices have worked with consumers to find other services," Wilson said.

Georgia did pay for Renita Belton to attend a Florida program, the National Deaf Academy near Orlando, as a youth. But when she reached 22, Renita Belton was no longer eligible for state funding to pay for services at specialized facilities.

“In Florida, I saw the services. I saw how they were working,” Gail Belton said. "I saw how the deaf people were working."

The options back in Georgia were limited.

Gail Belton initially built her daughter an apartment in her basement so she could have some degree of independence.

But Renita Belton often would stay awake at night. She roamed the streets night and day, while her mother was sleeping or working as a human resources director for a government agency.

“It created a very dangerous situation,” Gail Belton said. “To keep her from wandering, she had to be locked in the basement. I did not like leaving her in the basement, locked up. But the only way to keep her safe was to keep her confined."

But on those occasions, Renita would break bottles. She would cut herself. Gail Belton would come home from work to find "blood on the clothes, blood on the floor..."

Gail Belton said her daughter needed government services. But while the suit is pending, Gail Belton has had to patch together another option -- one that falls short of what she said her daughter needs.

The state would cover the cost of someone to watch Renita Belton for eight hours a day if she lived with her mother.

"I was trying to get her accustomed to being independent and I was trying to work," Gail Belton said.

The state allowance increased to $150 a day -- the cost of staff for two eight-hour shifts -- if she lived independently. A special waiver was needed to get 24-hour care.

So Gail Belton bought a second home -- this one in Snellville -- and made state-mandated changes to it so it would qualify as a "host" or "group" home.

The house has room for three more mentally ill, deaf women, but so far, the state has not referred any.

There are emergency exit instructions in virtually every room. Renita and her caregiver have fire drills. Modifications were made to the house so that it’s accessible to those with physical disabilities.

Also, Gail Belton had to find a provider willing to secure a special waiver, a process that is laborious. She could find only one company -- the since de-certified Bj&w -- that was willing to do it.

“I didn’t want this," Gail Benton said. "I just want to be a mom.”

In her case, that's not been easy.

Renita Belton has been diagnosed with developmental disabilities and mitochondrial cell disorder. She needs to be watched all the time, her mother said. In addition to breaking things and cutting herself, she also is suicidal and prone to wandering the streets and getting into cars with strangers if someone doesn’t watch her.

Renita Belton's destructiveness increases especially after gatherings where she is the only nonhearing person, both daughter and mother say.

“I just miss everything and I blow up,” Renita Belton told the AJC through an sign-language interpreter.

Renita Belton is a spunky woman who teases her mother and her caregiver -- one of three who reported to duty that day even though the firm that placed her was de-certified. Through sign language, Renita Belton engages them in playful conversations much like those a teenager would have with adults.

Her playfulness evaporates at the suggestion that a hearing person look after her. She is adamant about having caregivers who also are deaf and fluent in American Sign Language.

“Renita made it very clear I needed to provide people she can talk to,” Belton said. “My child is social. She likes being included. For her not to be aware of what’s going on around her, not being able to talk to people, creates isolation for her.”

Renita Belton was diagnosed as deaf when she was 3. Initially, she was sent to the Atlanta School for the Deaf but later enrolled in mainstream schools. By the time she was in the eighth grade, behavioral problems had developed.

“As a parent, I recognized there were some things occurring in her education,” Gail Belton said. “I first took it to the school system and got a letter saying … there were no problems ... But I was at the school nearly every day saying, ‘What is up?’”

Renita Belton was 16 when her mental illnesses were identified.

It was then that she was enrolled in specialized schools, first in Washington, D.C., and then the one in Orlando. Renita Belton caught up on some of the education she missed before her illnesses were identified and she learned some life skills.

"Every state that touches us [Georgia] has some services for deaf people," Gail Belton said. “... My daughter needs to be independent. She just needs help.”