The U.S. Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into how people with serious mental illness are treated in the metro Louisville area and whether they are subject to excessive institutionalization in psychiatric hospitals or other facilities.
The investigation, announced Tuesday in a news release, is separate from an ongoing Justice Department probe of practices of the Louisville Metro Police Department triggered by the 2020 death of Breonna Taylor, fatally shot by police attempting to serve a search warrant.
Rather, the new investigation is aimed specifically at services the state provides for people with serious mental illness and whether such treatment “unnecessarily segregates” such individuals from other mental health services.
“When people do not receive the community-based mental health services they need, they often get caught in a cycle of psychiatric hospital stays,” said Kristen Clarke, an assistant attorney general with the Justice Department.
She added the investigation is aimed at determining whether individuals with serious mental illnesses are “unnecessarily brought into contact with law enforcement” and whether their rights to mental health treatment are protected.
The Justice Department said it notified Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear — whose administration oversees public mental health services — of the investigation.
A spokeswoman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services said the administration “continues to prioritize Kentuckians’ mental health” and the governor has signed legislation to make services more accessible.
A spokeswoman for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said the investigation involves the state’s provision of mental health services to Louisvillians.
“We appreciate any efforts to ensure people are getting appropriate care,” she said in an email.
The Justice Department release did not say whether the investigation includes treatment for people with mental illness held at the Jefferson County jail, where eight people have died in custody since November, including three by suicide and two from overdoses, according to reports.
The department previously conducted a similar investigation in Alameda County, California, where it found the sheriff’s department violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by unnecessarily institutionalizing adults with mental health disabilities instead of providing care in the community.
In April 2021, the Justice Department released a 45-page report that accused the sheriff’s office-controlled Santa Rita Jail in California of failing to provide adequate mental health services to prisoners, including those at risk of suicide.
The investigation “uncovered evidence of violations that, taken together, result in a system where people with mental health disabilities in Alameda County find themselves unnecessarily cycling in and out of psychiatric institutions and jails,” the department said in a press release.
As a result, people with serious mental health needs experienced worsening conditions and, in some cases, seriously injured themselves or died, the press release said.
The Louisville investigation comes amid what one advocate called a “crisis” in help for some people with severe mental illness.
“It’s time — this has to occur,” said Jeff Edwards, director of the state Division of Protection and Advocacy, which represents people with disabilities. “This has to occur, and we have to have a good, humane response to serving people.”
The investigation falls under the American with Disabilities Act, the Justice Department said.
Edwards said the problem isn’t unique to Kentucky and reviews of services are underway in other communities.
Sheila Schuster, executive director of the Kentucky Mental Health Coalition, said she was “puzzled” by news of the investigation because the Louisville area has established a combination of public and private organizations that work to serve people with mental illness.
But “not everything has been solved and not everything gets funded,” she said.
Most services in Kentucky are provided through a system of regional community mental health centers. Louisville is served by Seven Counties Services.
All operate under the state behavioral health agency.
Use of psychiatric hospitals and other institutions has long been a source of concern among advocates who argue more services in the community would better serve patients and reduce costs of institutionalization.
But budget constraints often have limited such services, leaving jails and short-term psychiatric hospital stays as the alternative.
Edwards said he hopes the investigation can result in solutions for people who don’t immediately get the help they need.
“We have to get there,” he said. “We don’t meet people where we need to meet them.”
Reporter Bailey Loosemore contributed to this story. Reach Deborah Yetter at [email protected] Find her on Twitter at @d_yetter. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: www.courier-journal.com/subscribe.