- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The D.C. Department of Mental Health has overhauled its practices for evaluating civilly committed persons after an internal audit uncovered legal violations, according to a recent report.

The D.C. Office of the Inspector General found that from 2002 to 2003, mental health officials did not adequately monitor whether some persons received psychiatric examinations every 90 days.

The city law requires that “civilly committed persons must be examined by a psychiatrist or psychologist within 90 days of commitment … and every 90 days after ….”

The breakdown, discovered in a review of more than two dozen case files, placed the District at risk of a lawsuit and could have resulted in persons being committed for periods that were longer than required, auditors said.

The Office of the Inspector General said it immediately notified the department of the problems uncovered during the inquiry, rather than disclosing findings in a draft report upon completion of the investigation, as is the standard practice.

“Because of the seriousness of the issue, we thought it was important to follow this through,” Assistant Inspector General William J. DiVello said yesterday.

During the inquiry, Mr. DiVello said, auditors found “no assurances” that psychiatric examinations always were conducted every 90 days.

Mr. DiVello said the Department of Mental Health was “extremely cooperative” during the inquiry.

The Office of the Inspector General sought to find out whether the department exercised oversight of nearly a dozen outpatient clinics, which provide psychiatric treatment through contracts with the District.

The clinics provide services to patients who have been released from St. Elizabeths Hospital but require continued monitoring in the community. The hospital treats more than 400 patients.

City mental health officials could not be reached for comment yesterday. In a letter to acting Inspector General Austin A. Andersen, department director Martha Knisley said the problems have been addressed.

Reforms include updated policies, more complete listings of persons requiring treatment and monthly meetings among city mental health officials to discuss exams, she wrote.

The audit comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of the department and of St. Elizabeths.

Last month, a federally chartered watchdog group filed a federal lawsuit against the District, saying failing conditions have led to the deaths of several patients, while others have been forced to live in bug- and rat-infested conditions.

Miss Knisley has said plans for a new mental hospital are under way. It will open by fall 2007 at a cost of $105 million to $110 million.

The hospital will house 292 patients, down from the current census of about 450. Three other buildings on the campus will be renovated to house patients if there is not enough room in the hospital, city officials have said.

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