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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 14, 2006

Keep mental-health services out of courts

Hawai'i's experience in meeting its obligations to groups such as prisoners, mental patients, special-education students and others has over the years been far from perfect.

In fact, much of the progress made in these areas has come under the threat of a federal takeover or the actual imposition of federal authority through the courts.

Sadly, that pattern is again appearing with a new warning that a federal takeover of our community mental health services may be looming. The state has two choices: fight the proposed takeover in the courts or make enough changes so that the threat is lifted.

For the sake of those who rely on state community mental-health services, the right choice is to make the needed changes rather than fight this in court.

Federal takeovers or oversight have been both a burden and an irritation to local officials who must provide adequate social services with limited resources.

Community mental-health services are no exception.

Federal oversight of the state's mental hospital ended some time ago, after major improvements were put into place. But the courts maintained oversight of community services.

Federal Judge David Ezra last month said he did not believe the state was making "best efforts" toward completing a community mentalhealth plan.

Without improvements, he warned, a federal takeover was possible.

Attorney General Mark Bennett vehemently denied that the state was faltering in its responsibilities.

While there is much left to do, Bennett acknowledged, he said the state has made and continues to make substantial progress.

As a way of measuring that progress, Federal Magistrate Judge Kevin Chang has come up with about a dozen "benchmarks" to determine whether the state is making adequate progress toward its own avowed goals. Most of those benchmarks appear to be administrative and do not impose expensive new services or programs.

Bennett promises a "good faith" effort to hit the benchmarks before an April 30 deadline. The alternative, he said, would be a legal challenge to a contempt finding or federal takeover.

Further legal wrangling would serve no one, would undoubtedly cost taxpayers money and would cause more delay in the delivery of services services everyone agrees are sorely needed.

Hawai'i can do better.