The state Department of Human Services plans on freezing all state-run beds set aside for people with severe mental illness at Fort Logan and the Colorado Mental Health Institute and use the space for people charged with crimes and in need of competency treatment.
The move, which includes about 20 beds for juveniles, virtually cuts off all state beds for mentally ill people — except those who are currently awaiting competency restoration in jail.
“It’s amazing to me the bare bones of the system are the civil beds they’ve had,” said Doyle Forrestal, CEO of the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council. “It’s part of the system that is now gone.”
State officials acknowledge that the move to freeze about 65 civil beds is dramatic. They say they were “reluctant” to make the decision, but feel they have no choice given that dozens of people are waiting months and months in jail for competency restoration before they can face criminal charges filed against them.
“We had not had this on the table for awhile, but the pressure has clearly increased from the federal court as well as from the plaintiff,” said Robert Werthwein, director of the Office of Behavioral Health. “We do not feel like we have an option given the settlement agreement involves constitutional rights of individuals.”
The state Department of Human Services is currently caught up in a large federal lawsuit over the lengthy times mentally ill people charged with crimes sit in jail for competency restoration before they go to court.
State officials agreed in a previous settlement to treat people within a month of being found incompetent to stand trial. But they fell behind. Competency restoration requests continued to swell and sick people waited months in jail, pre-trial, for treatment.
So they were sued again earlier this year by Disability Law Colorado.
That case is ongoing. The judge earlier this week signed off on a “special master” for the state agency, which means an independent monitor will have broad authority to help them sort out this problem and act as sort of an expert judge.
It is unclear whether that special master will approve of the plan to freeze civil beds.
Public defenders have also stepped up pressure on the state Department of Human Services, filing dozens of contempt motions since Nov. 1. These motions ask judges to forcibly move mentally ill people out of jail and into competency treatment immediately or hold the state in contempt of court.
Judges are increasingly granting these motions. In a four-week period between late October and late November alone, judges across the state ordered 24 people out of jail immediately and into treatment, according to data furnished by the state.
Werthwein said the difficult decision means that community-based health centers are going to have to pick up the slack. He noted some community health centers have in-patient treatment units that could pick up some people — as well as a new in-patient facility on the Western Slope.
“The mental health centers and the community health centers are going to have to step up and help out as well,” Werthwein said.
The decision to freeze all civil beds — which will likely take effect as soon as January — left mental health advocates and leaders across the state appalled. Most say it was near impossible to begin with to get one of the 50 or 60 beds set aside at Fort Logan or the state’s mental hospital in Pueblo.
“It just makes a bad situation that much worse,” said Liz Hickman, executive director of Centennial Mental Health, which runs centers on the north Eastern Plains. “It makes the thick barrier impossible. It’s been very, very challenging as it was to get through extreme patients to them.”
Lauren Snyder works at Mental Health Colorado and said this would be unacceptable for any other group of people.
“Would we do this for any other physical illness?” she said. “We as a state have failed these individuals long before they had a competency restoration ordered. Mental health is the only condition where we wait until they’re at stage 4 to treat it. And even then, we’re more likely to call law enforcement when that person is in crisis.”