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In an important victory for the mentally ill in Denver, a local judge found this week that the state is in contempt of court for failing to provide care and shelter to those with chronic mental illnesses.

Denver District Judge Morris Hoffman fined Colorado $1.4 million and ordered the state to immediately fulfill the terms of a settlement reached as a result of a class-action lawsuit filed nearly twenty years ago ("A Badly Altered State," September 14, 2000). The lawsuit is often referred to as the Goebel case, after Ruth Ann Goebel, a mentally ill and homeless woman who froze to death in a Denver alley in 1983.

After years of litigation, the state and a plaintiffs' group headed by local attorney Kathleen Mullen had reached that settlement in 1994. It called for the state to provide treatment for hundreds of people with chronic mental illness living in central Denver. Spending was supposed to be boosted by $7 million a year and target 1,600 people for treatment.

As part of the plan, the City of Denver agreed to fund the purchase of 250 units of housing for the mentally ill. The homeless mentally ill were given priority under the agreement, and the state said it would pay for case managers to track down such individuals and arrange housing and treatment on their behalf.

Mullen, who has been involved with the case for more than fifteen years, thought the 1994 agreement would be the end of it. But then she watched in frustration as Colorado failed to live up to its legal obligations. She was especially outraged that some of the housing units reserved for the mentally ill were left empty -- even as schizophrenics slept on Denver sidewalks -- because the state didn't want to pay for treatment of potential residents. In exasperation, she returned to court in 1997, insisting that Colorado had failed to live up to the agreement and asking Hoffman to find the state in contempt. She also asked that Marva Hammons, director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, be required to apply for a bed every night at a local homeless shelter until the state came into compliance.

Hoffman didn't consent to that request. "The twin purposes of contempt sanctions are to vindicate the integrity of the judicial branch and to increase the likelihood of future compliance," he said, "and I am not satisfied these kinds of personal sanctions aimed at Ms. Hammons will further those purposes."

However, Hoffman added that should Colorado continue to violate the 1994 agreement, he will consider fining Hammons or even send her to jail. He also said he would fine the state $7,500 for every day it remains out of compliance and boost that amount to as much as $50,000 per day if the state doesn't fulfill its obligations.

The state plans to appeal the ruling, which Hammons describes as "outrageous." In a statement, she claims that Colorado has spent $90 million helping Denver's chronically mentally ill since 1994 and is in substantial compliance with the settlement agreement.

Mullen says Colorado needs to get serious about serving those with severe mental illness, some of the most vulnerable people in the state. "I hope that the state will step back and say, 'Enough of this,'" she adds. "It's time to look at the needs of these patients and address them. These are chronically mentally ill people; their needs won't go away."


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