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Mental health agency just can't be bothered

Chris Powell Journal Inquirer

Publication: The Day

Published February 24. 2014 4:00AM

Back in the bad old days Connecticut's Department of Children and Youth Services, predecessor to today's Department of Children and Families, used claims of client confidentiality to conceal its mistakes. Time after time a child under the department's supervision would be badly neglected, hurt, or even killed by a parent or guardian with a long record of incompetence or abuse and the department would refuse to account for its handling of the case, sometimes even claiming to be protecting the privacy of a child who had been murdered.

This happened so often and got so comic, contemptible, and clichéd that eventually even the governor and General Assembly demanded a change in practice. Now the department is much more forthcoming about such cases, in part because the office of the child advocate was created to investigate and report about the department's performance.

Not that this has done much for child welfare in Connecticut. Policy is still to rationalize and coddle the barnyard living arrangements that abuse children and never to wonder about why social disintegration is worsening. But at least state government no longer claims that in concealing its mistakes it means to protect the privacy of murdered kids.

No, the righteous covering-up function seems to have been transferred to the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which indifferently witnesses one catastrophe of mental illness after another, from the Newtown school massacre a year ago, committed by a chronically disturbed young man, to this month's nearly murderous assault on an elderly woman in West Hartford by her crazed daughter, who, according to the police account, first reported to a hospital and then a mental health crisis telephone line that she felt like killing someone, only to be turned away and left to follow her demons.

With concern rising about the accessibility and adequacy of mental illness treatment and with DCF last year having been formally commissioned by state law to study children's access to treatment (but, for some reason, not the access to treatment for adults), good citizens might consider the West Hartford case worth reviewing officially. But the other day the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services refused to comment on the case at all, purportedly to protect the defendant's privacy, though she was widely identified in news reports upon her arrest and even shown at length on television as she appeared in court, twitching and looking demented enough to suit the police report and the charges against her.

So did the hospital and crisis line turn her away after she warned them of her violent urges? If so, were they right to do so? Do such troubled people become believable only once they have harmed someone or themselves? Can they get treatment even then? Is there really any treatment at all, or is humane incarceration the best that can be done? Will purportedly high-minded bureaucratic secrecy ameliorate mental illness any more than it ameliorated child abuse?

While the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services may say about the West Hartford case - as the child-protection agency could not say in so many horrible child-abuse cases - that none of its employees were directly involved, the fact is state government regulates providers of medical services and their inadequacy may be of public concern. The department helps set mental health policy.

But though nearly everyone in Connecticut who pays a little attention might have found the West Hartford case disturbing, the department can't bring itself to say even, "Gee, that really looks awful and we're on it and will get back to you about it" The department affects to think that saying even that much somehow would violate the privacy of a person just charged sensationally with attempted murder.

That's crazy. No wonder state government is trying to get people to stop using the word.

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