The Challenge of Serving Mental Health Patients and the Legislators Who Are Making It Worse

by William Skink

The Missoulian today is recognizing Patty Kent’s tenure building affordable housing for those suffering from mental illness. In 23 years of doing the job, the Missoulian reports, Patty Kent is responsible for adding 208 beds of various kinds of housing capacity at an estimated cost of 21 million dollars. If you pencil out this “affordable” housing that means each bed cost roughly $100,000 dollars. From the link:

Where other people sit around and talk about building massive projects, Kent would go out and put up six or eight units at a time, he said. She has not only the the heart and passion for the center’s clients, she has the skills to make hard projects work financially.

“You have to be a savvy business person. These units are businesses, and you have to make the cash flow,” Morton said.

Kent said she’s been able to do the work because of the support far and wide: “It’s been my pleasure – completely – and privilege. Everywhere you go, it takes the entire community to say we need this, we want this. I just help move it along.”

Hopefully some of that housing will be available to deal with the consequences of closing down the Montana Development Center in Boulder, a seriously flawed move enacted by our legislature. Why was the process flawed? Because the investigation was compromised from the beginning due to a conflict of interest that should have been a flag for legislators:

The motives of the lead investigator behind a state-backed probe into alleged mistreatment of patients at the Montana Developmental Center are being questioned amid calls for the Legislature to reconsider its decision to close the facility.

Dana Toole — a Montana Department of Justice investigator and the top sleuth charged with vetting reports of abuse, neglect and mistreatment at the soon-to-be shuttered center — is married to Jeff Folsom, chief operating officer at Aware Inc., an Anaconda-based company that provides services for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

That company is expected to see a bump in business as a direct result of the Boulder-based center’s closure, a controversial move that won legislative approval two months after the release of a January 2015 report that featured 15 accounts of physical, verbal and sexual abuse substantiated by Toole.

A year later, the decision to mothball the center — which is expected to spell the loss of 250 jobs — remains divisive.

Six of the 15 appointees to a committee tasked with overseeing the center’s phase-out signed a March letter to the Independent Record that called reports of abuse at the center “drastically overblown” and urged the Legislature to repeal the law mandating its closure.

This information was known at the time this legislation was moving through the sausage factory in Helena, but apparently didn’t cause too much concern at the time. Also, the investigator wasn’t the only person who risked the appearance of a conflict of interest, the Democrat co-sponsor of the legislation was on the hot seat last year:

Ethics questions surrounding her investigation aren’t the first to be raised in the wake of the center’s planned closure.

This time last year, state Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, caught some heat for her sponsorship of the still-controversial bill to shutter the center.

The Independent Record reported then that Caferro worked for an organization financially supported by Aware.

A business disclosure statement filed with political regulators 14 months earlier listed the company as Caferro’s sole source of salary and retirement benefits.

She told the newspaper her sponsorship of the bill did not qualify as a conflict of interest, a stance she stood by on Monday.

If this wasn’t messy enough, there’s more problematic actions occurring surrounding the use of this facility, or, more accurately, the non-use of MDC to help with overcrowding at Warm Springs, and at least one legislator is raising concerns about a state lease:

Many Montana lawmakers and state officials agreed facilities to house the state’s criminally convicted mental health patients were overcrowded.

Not as many agreed on how to pay to fix it.

Such was the conundrum Gov. Steve Bullock looked to resolve with September’s sudden announcement that the state would move those patients, and some state mental health workers, to a privately owned building in Galen, a stone’s throw from developmentally disabled patients at the soon-be-shuttered Montana Developmental Center in Boulder.

Weeks later, Montana officials signed a 19-year lease at the 38,000-square-foot former federal juvenile placement facility in Galen – terms that squeaked just under square footage and lease term requirements that would have triggered mandatory legislative review of the deal.

There was no competitive bidding process to award the Galen lease. In fact, officials said Wednesday they didn’t even look at potential alternatives to the $1.2 million annual agreement.

That’s how the state’s newest landlord became Community Counseling and Correctional Services – a Butte-based nonprofit that employs Brandie Villa, a top company accountant and the wife of Governor’s Office Budget Director Dan Villa.

With all the conflict of interest and self-serving going on, I have a question for everyone involved: does anyone actually give a shit about the people and their families caught up in this clusterfuck?

I expect more problems will arise as this situation gets sorted out. And I expect Montana to continue it’s deplorable track record of serving those with serious mental health problems.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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10 Responses to The Challenge of Serving Mental Health Patients and the Legislators Who Are Making It Worse

  1. Greg Strandberg says:

    Nepotism is strong in the capital. It’s a common form of corruption. I’m disappointed to see MT Democrats engaging in it, but not surprised. The party is corrupt.

    Keep on ’em. Every article makes people think. They sow the seeds of doubt, making people question whether the MT Dems are actually helping them.

    This is good, this is healthy. We need more of this. There is no reason for anyone to be nervous, should they be following the rules and doing everything right.

    We see time and time again, however, that this is not the case. Dan Villa should never have been appointed by Schweitzer. I’ve heard numerous times from Helena workers that he is not qualified for that job at all.

    We saw the favorable staff changes in January when Bullock had some staff changes in his office. We saw the same way back in 2011 or so when Bullock’s wife’s political company got a $1 million grant for an Obamacare study when Bullock was ruling on it as AG.

    The MT Dems are corrupt. It’s sad that they’ve become no better than the MT GOP. Used to be they’d care about people that were struggling. Not anymore. Now they mostly care about themselves.

    That’s sad, but I know it’ll change.

  2. Big Swede says:

    I’d contend that there’s religious charities that are less self-serving.

    Under Pres. Sanders however their days would be numbered.

    “I don’t believe in charities,” said Mayor Sanders, bringing a shocked silence to a packed hotel banquet room. The Mayor, who is a Socialist, went on to question the “fundamental concepts on which charities are based” and contended that government, rather than charity organizations, should take over responsibility for social programs.

    — Bernie Sanders in 1981

    • JC says:

      While some may be less self-serving, many are more self-serving, and greatly so. Like the catholic church. or mega churches like Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church:

      Gives the NBA a run for its money…

    • Swede, the people at MDC and Warm Springs are not the kind of people charities can help in a meaningful way, and some have been criminally convicted. one of them is the guy who attacked awhile back–and guess where the assault happened? behind the Union Gospel Mission, a Christian charity that absolutely can’t handle some of the rough characters who use their services. that may be why they dramatically cut back their hours.

      • Big Swede says:

        You’re the expert but it seems to me that religious organizations such as the Rescue Mission, Catholic Charities, and Union Gospel Mission can take the pressure off the governmental assistence programs so they can concentrate on the hard cases.

  3. steve kelly says:

    Not sure why there is not some effort to close the gap between people with no shelter, and those needing shelter with “temporary” housing. Permanent housing is slow and expensive, never narrowing the gap. An alternative solution is needed, something between permanent housing and no housing. The city and state own property that should be dedicated to closing that gap in funding and shelter for all.

    • JC says:

      Without getting into the discussion of what the city does spend bond money on (bonds for big buildings, open space, libraries, 4 million for a ped overpass on reserve, e.g.) and TIF money (subsidizing corporations to gentrify the community), the easy answer is that the city just doesn’t want to get involved in transitional housing in any meaningful way.

      “Out of sight, out of mind” and “move them down the road” are operative phrases among those who could motivate the city to dedicate even a middling amount to help resolve the issue with transitional housing.

      But the problem of housing in Missoula in general, is that minimum wage does not allow one to rent a simple apartment. And people of little means have a bunch of strikes against them: no credit, felonies, no savings for deposits, addiction and mental illness problems, low or no job skills, etc.

      So even if Missoula were to solve its transitional housing problem, people would transition to… where? And do what? We’ve got college graduates whose only negative is $25-50k in student loan debt and $10k in credit card debt working as baristas, waitresses, cooks and cleaners. The whole job market is wonky in Missoula. It’s no wonder the $15/hour minimum wage movement is about ready to hit town, it’s in lieu of real starter jobs for young people fresh out of college, for boom/bust cycle skilled trade workers, and laborers whose bodies are wearing out (worn out worker syndrome, like tree planters and fire fighters).

      And when the half billion dollar building boom fueled by the bank oligarchy, motels and tax expenditures runs its course, all of the trade workers can begin competing with each other for jobs flipping burgers and changing bed sheets too.

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