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Long-running D.C. mental health case settled

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2012

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray announced Thursday the "historic" settlement of 37-year-old litigation brought by mental health patients who decried the District's lack of non-institutional treatment settings.

The case, Dixon v. Gray, had out-lived two judges since its filing by William Dixon and other patients at St. Elizabeths Hospital in 1974, Dennis Jones, the case's court monitor, said.

Mr. Jones also noted that several attorneys who attended negotiation meetings on the settlement were born after the litigation began.

"Every elected mayor in the District of Columbia has been involved in the case," Mr. Gray said.

The District became the sole defendant in the case in 1987, when the federal government transferred all operations at St. Elizabeths to the city.

Mr. Gray said the District has made substantial progress in 15 of the 19 criteria set by the courts during the decades-long litigation.

The settlement calls on the District to make progress in four remaining areas — children and youth services, supported housing, supported employment and continuity of care.

The city has agreed to build 300 new housing units for residents in the mental health system, and 100 of them are funded in the current year's budget, officials said.

Mr. Gray called on the city to support and integrate mentally ill residents into the workforce and community and reject the aspects of isolation that led to problems at St. Elizabeths decades ago.

"It really was a warehousing of people," Mr. Gray said, noting institutional practices at the time pre-dated advancements in pharmacology. "There were some forward-thinking things and not-so-forward thinking things done in that era."

At its peak, St. Elizabeths housed 7,000 patients. Today, it is a "first-class" facility with fewer than 300 patients, many of them housed under court order, he said.

Among them is John Hinckley Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Reagan in 1981.

In approving the settlement, U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan called it an "historic and memorable event in the history of the District of Columbia," D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan said.

Mr. Gray credited Mr. Nathan and Stephen T. Baron, director of the city's Department of Mental Health, for closing out the case after former Attorney General Peter J. Nickles set the final pieces in motion.

"You were the anchor man," Mr. Gray said to Mr. Nathan. "You grabbed the baton and magnificently ran to the finish line."

Officials said collaboration among its agencies, with oversight from deputy mayors, will be key to ending seven other consent decrees and class-action suits involving the District.

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