Mental health agency expects improvement in wake of leadership changes

New London - The change in structure and leadership at Sound Community Services will benefit the nonprofit mental health agency's programming, quality of care and community presence, the agency said in a news release Friday afternoon.

The release is the first official communication from the agency since a brief statement Tuesday that there had been a leadership change. The release makes no mention of the departure late Monday of Gail Lawson, executive director since 2005, or of the status of two other administrators, Chief Financial Officer Cindy Kirchhoff and Chief Informatics Officer Christopher "Heath" Bish. All three names have been removed from the agency's website, however.

A team comprising Lance Niles, corporate compliance officer; Jessica DeFlumer-Trapp, director of community support programs; and Gino DeMaio, director of housing and residential services, is now managing the agency, the news release said. With about 700 clients and an annual budget of about $10 million, Sound Community Services is southeastern Connecticut's largest provider of outpatient mental health services for adults. State and federal agencies provide most its funding.

Sound Community Services' 12-member board of directors expects that "this new leadership structure will allow for collaborative work to improve current issues, develop a meaningful strategic plan, and carry the agency into the future," the release said.

Board Chairwoman Jane Cable declined to provide any information beyond what was contained in the release.

Lawson's departure Monday came five weeks after articles in The Day disclosed that about $222,000 in purchases for airplane flights, hotel stays, restaurant meals and various retail items were charged to agency credit cards issued to Lawson, Bish and Kirchhoff. The State Auditor of Public Accounts is investigating the credit card statements and other financial information, as well as an electronic medical records consulting company being run out of the agency by Lawson and Bish.

The financial issues came to light amid criticism raised by a group of former employees about tyrannical leadership and high turnover at the agency. In addition, the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services has been monitoring the agency since December because of client care issues including a lack of medical professionals to prescribe and administer psychiatric medications.

Addressing one of those concerns, the news release announced the hiring of Dr. Stephen Vance as the agency's chief medical officer. He had previously been chief medical officer of the Mendocino Community Mental Health Center in Ukiah, Calif., and has received awards in psychotherapy and psychiatry, the release said.

"Throughout the past year, the agency has continued to provide excellent, high-quality services in the majority of programs," the release said. "This is a clear testimony to the skill and dedication of our employees, who have continued to support leadership and have remained focused on the agency's persons served."


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