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The recent articles and commentaries in The Day about alleged mismanagement and questionable spending at Sound Community Services are disturbing to the mental health community on many levels. We worry about access to care for a particularly vulnerable group of clients and erosion of public confidence in the state-funded mental health systems as a whole because of reports of bad management in a single agency. Each new allegation further disrupts business as usual, fueling panic and fear among those who need reliable access to stable, quality mental health services.
The vast majority of community-based mental health services funded in our region by the state of Connecticut work very well, particularly with ever-declining levels of funding and resources. Not only do their staff get about half the salary of state workers doing the same job - a huge bargain for the taxpayer - but these agencies are well known for their commitment to the clients they serve. Their work promotes independence, self-sufficiency and recovery, saving the state millions of dollars on shelters, ER visits, and in the disability and criminal justice systems.
Sound Community Services' Outpatient Clinical Program deserves public censure for its abrupt termination of services to almost 500 clients, leaving them without desperately needed medication and therapy, and placing a heavy burden in recent months on other providers to fill the gap. These other providers, including Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and the Southeastern Mental Health Authority, continue to ensure that nobody falls through the cracks as Sound Community Services works to resolve its problems.
What's not in the news reports is that the other programs of Sound Community Services, like case management, residential, and social rehabilitation, are doing very well. Their dedicated staff remain committed to helping clients to live independently with pride and dignity. The relentlessly negative news reports leave the public with the impression that Sound isn't doing anything well, and staff morale is suffering as a result.
Meanwhile, the decentralization of outpatient psychiatric services at L&M Hospital, also in New London, couldn't have come at a worse time. Those living in New London now worry that they won't be able to get necessary services, or that they'll be forced to accept new providers or a lower quality of services, and other area providers, already strained beyond capacity, are being inundated with requests for service.
What can be done? The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) can only act if Sound Community Services violates its contract with the state. DMHAS continues to review daily reports on staffing and client care, and the state is auditing Sound's finances. But the agency has multiple sources of funding. If the travel and other expenses alluded to in The Day were not paid for with state funds, they do not violate the state contract.
Sound Community Services has a Board of Directors, whose responsibility is to oversee the executive director and ensure that the agency is doing its job properly. Any issues not directly related to the terms of the state contract fall under their purview. It is essential that Sound's board takes decisive action now to address the lingering questions regarding the agency's business practices. Such action is needed to put an end to the growing mistrust in the community toward the mental health system, and to allow us all to get back to the business of recovery.
Jennifer Gross is the associate director of the Eastern Regional Mental Health Board.