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Is It The Law Or Is It The Staffing Shortage?

Posted by Chris Liebenthal on August 9, 2010

From Milwaukee County First:

Milwaukee News Buzz is reporting that a panel of legislators and mental health experts are going to sit down and discuss the current laws regarding emergency detentions of people experiencing a psychiatric crisis.

Milwaukee County, like in so many other aspects, is treated differently than all of the other counties in the state.  Where any other county has 72 hours for a psychiatrist to evaluate a person brought in on an emergency detention by the police, Milwaukee County only has 24 hours.

The article explains why the difference:

In all other counties in the state, psychiatrists are allowed the full 72 to hours to review a patient. The review serves as a second opinion. The first opinion comes from a police officer, and it was the Milwaukee police department that prompted the state Legislature to craft a different set of standards for Milwaukee County in the late 1970s.

Then Milwaukee Police Chief Harold Breier objected to the emergency detention procedure adopted earlier in the decade, arguing that police should be left out of the process.  According to the Milwaukee Journal, the department went to great lengths to avoid handling commitments to mental hospitals, instead booking many potential patients into jail on minor charges. As a result, the state law put less emphasis on the role of police by requiring a psychiatrist’s opinion to be delivered more quickly in Milwaukee.

So once again we find ourselves at a disadvantage.  It does get frustrating that Milwaukee County always seems to get the short end of the straw.

But the one thing that should be pointed out is that this law has been in effect for over thirty years, but it only became an issue within the last eight years.  So what changed?

Well, the most obvious answer is that Walker started his systematic destruction of the mental health system.  He reduced staff, he reduced the number of available psychiatric beds, and he reduced the amount of services available.

When the police find someone in the middle of a psychiatric crisis, they take them into custody and bring them to BHD.  However, when they get there, it is not unusual for the staff to make the police officer(s) sit with the detained person for hours on end.  Sometimes the waits are so long that the relief officers have to go to BHD to relieve the detaining officer.  It has gotten so bad that some of the suburban police forces have been complaining that they are racking up massive amounts of overtime to just sit with the people until a doctor can see them.

We are currently seeing the longer term effects of Scott Walker’s “cost-saving measures” with the facility being found in “shoddy condition” and female patients being sexually assaulted due to insufficient supervision.  It will now cost tax payers tens of millions of dollars to fix the building just for the short term, not to mention the cost of building a new building, or the costs that will come with the inevitable lawsuits.

In summary, while it is good that the legislators and the mental health experts review, and hopefully alter, this unfair law, there is still a strong need for the way to correct that BHD is being staffed and administered.  The biggest concern is that if they do alter and loosen up the law, the county executive will only see that as an excuse to further trample on our most vulnerable citizens in order to make a worthless political posture.


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