- Associated Press - Friday, January 1, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Talks over a deal to improve mental health care for children broke down largely because the state didn’t want a federal judge to oversee its implementation.

That’s according to a transcript of what lawyers for Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood and the U.S. Justice Department told U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate.

The 2010 lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center claims Mississippi illegally sends mentally ill children to institutions instead of caring for them at home, violating the Medicaid Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Federal officials got involved, issuing a report four years ago accusing the state of widespread violations. However, the federal government has never joined the suit or filed its own.

The transcript, obtained by The Associated Press, shows lawyers told Wingate on Dec. 17 that an agreement had largely been reached, but that talks foundered on court oversight. The state wants a private settlement, which means the plaintiffs could have to sue again if they’re unhappy with Mississippi’s remedies.

“Children in the state have been waiting for far too long for services in the community and are currently in institutions unnecessarily as a result,” said Justice Department lawyer Deena Fox, explaining to Wingate why the department doesn’t think further settlement negotiations are fruitful.

Harold Pizzetta, the lawyer handling the case for the state, blamed the breakdown on the Justice Department. He said Hood sent a settlement offer to Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and Gupta rejected it, declaring an impasse.

“They walked away from the table, not us,” Pizzetta said.

Hood has said repeatedly that he wants to settle the lawsuit, and spokeswoman Rachel Ring said Hood still believes that’s likely.

“Negotiations often start and stop many times during the course of litigation,” Ring wrote in an email. “We are confident that negotiations in this matter will resume before any trial occurs.”

Ring did not respond when asked whether the state would implement the changes Hood proposed.

Following an AP request, Hood’s office declined to release the state’s final offer to Gupta. Ring cited a protective order issued by U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Parker keeping all documents in settlement talks private.

The Clarion-Ledger had challenged that order, seeking a copy of a report by the Technical Assistance Collaborative that was commissioned to help outline what changes under a settlement might look like. Parker wrote in his order that the newspaper could ask to have the protective order dissolved when settlement talks ended.

Families as Allies, a group seeking more community-based services for children’s mental issues, complains that the secrecy means the parties aren’t getting community input.

“Families haven’t been at the table and they’re the only people who can say what will work,” Executive Director Joy Hogge said.

Wingate told lawyers he would rule on the state’s motion to dismiss part of the lawsuit. The plaintiffs claim the state is violating early screening portions of the Medicaid Act, but Parker recommends Wingate dismiss that part of the suit, agreeing with the state’s claims that the plaintiffs had failed to ask for screening. Even if that count is dismissed, the plaintiffs’ claims that Mississippi is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act would continue.

Wingate also said he will rule on whether document discovery and witness depositions should begin. Those activities were automatically frozen after the state argued Wingate didn’t have authority under the U.S. Constitution to hear the suit.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy


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