Mental Anguish

Rescuing the mentally ill has brought millions to the Mental Health Corporation of Denver--as well as complaints of coercion, mismanagement and neglect.

After he departs, Robertson slumps in her chair. "This place," she says, "is a huge nursery school."

Robertson worked at Highlands in its last months before taking on the job of managing Valdez. She believes there will always be a need for boarding homes, which have become, almost by default, a refuge for the mentally ill, particularly those shunned by their families or cast out of state facilities after years of institutionalization. They may not be anyone's ideal of comfort or privacy--at its peak, Valdez had as many as four residents sharing a single room--but they do offer hot meals and a bed, at a price someone living on a government disability check can afford.

Yet many advocates for the mentally ill regard the homes as little more than warehouses where residents are allowed to stagnate rather than learn skills that could help them cope with their illness. "The whole notion of having huge numbers of needy people stacked up in that kind of facility is a recipe for disaster," declares Kathleen Mullen, the attorney for the plaintiff class in the Goebel lawsuit. "They're not facilities that can meet the needs of folks appropriately."

Mental-health professionals concede that Valdez and La Bonte are relatively clean, well-maintained homes--but under the Goebel plan, they're considered substandard housing. Highlands was arguably much worse, yet its closure last year touched off a scramble that persists to this day for affordable housing for its 120 residents. Owner Harold Harmer, who has since converted the property into condominiums, is still pursuing a lawsuit against the city, claiming that officials were determined to shut him down in order to implement the Goebel plan.

Mullen notes that the Goebel settlement doesn't give officials the right to close down the homes, but it does require the state to make a concerted effort to place residents elsewhere--even if that means overcoming the initial resistance of people who say they're perfectly content with their current home.

"There has to be a neutral opportunity for these clients to experience the services they're entitled to," she says. "And I mean a real opportunity--not just asking someone if they want to move, but identifying appropriate placements and working with the people. If someone says, 'Heck no, I want to go back to Valdez,' they can make that choice. But how do they make that choice if the only option they've had for fifteen years has been to be stuck in Highlands or Valdez?"

Neutrality, though, is hard to come by in the debate over the mentally ill; everyone, it seems, has an agenda. MHCD officials say they have higher expectations of what their clients can achieve than do the boarding-home operators, with their nursery-school approach. McGuirk even talks about discouraging use of the term "chronically mentally ill," since it tends to lower expectations. But Robertson and other critics say MHCD is ignoring the wishes of their residents--and their right to live where they please.

McGuirk notes that boarding-home operators often manage their residents' money for them and receive their disability checks as the designated payee. "That creates a kind of leverage that can be coercive," he says. "I've heard of operators making statements to residents like, 'If you leave, you won't be able to come back'--that kind of not-so-veiled threat."

Yet MHCD is also the designated payee for hundreds of its clients. The corporation has an aggressive "benefits acquisition team"--and that, the home operators charge, gives them enormous power over a client.

"I've got one guy who's lived here since '82," says Phil Valdez, operator of the La Bonte boarding home (and son of Vernon Valdez, owner of the Valdez home). "He's his own payee; he gets his check in his own name. But he has a speech impediment, and it's very hard to understand him. A year ago Mental Health wanted to move him to the Barth Hotel. How did they know he wanted to go there? When it was time to move, he got upset and they called it off. But yesterday he got a letter from Social Security, informing him that MHCD was now his payee.

"What right do they have to change his payeeship, so that he's under their control? If he'd had a hospitalization or incarceration, was being exploited financially, was squandering his money or didn't pay his rent, then that would be grounds for Social Security to review it. But for them to arbitrarily take it over, it doesn't seem right."

Valdez concedes the Goebel plan poses an economic threat to his business, but he says he's more concerned about the impact it's had on his residents. "For the corporation to assert that they have to get their care from them and they have to live in certain locations is a violation of their rights," he says.

Robertson has her stories, too, of MHCD staffers cajoling or alarming her residents with moving plans. She mentions one man who's been moved in and out of Valdez a couple of times by MHCD and is now gearing up for another move.

"First he said to me, 'Valdez has very bad memories for me and I'm ready to go,'" she recalls. "I said, 'Really? What are the bad memories?' And he said, 'I don't know. That's what they told me.'"

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