Tulsa officials support the agreement with the OK mental health agency

Tulsa officials support the agreement with the OK mental health agency

TULSA, Okla. — Tulsa County residents are taking legal action against the state Department of Mental Health. More than a year after a lawsuit was filed, the state is looking to settle.

Four unnamed residents filed a lawsuit against the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services in March 2023 while awaiting court-ordered mental health support.

The lack of urgency to care for these incarcerated people is something District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said has been a problem for nearly a decade.

“We had to say ‘please, you have to get them out of jail, this is not a treatment facility, this is a prison,’” Kunzweiler said. “Only for the Department of Mental Health to put them on a waiting list. where they languished, days, weeks and months in a facility that was not designed to meet their immediate needs.”

While neither he nor the TCSO has the authority to handle the state’s mental health sector, Kunzweiler said he’s had enough.

“It took citizens who are victims to force a lawsuit to get us to this point, so our plea is that you do your job,” Kunzweiler said.

One proposed solution would give ODMHSAS a maximum of 21 days to provide mental health care to a person in a county jail found incompetent by a court.

Sheriff Vic Regalado pointed to the problem as a lack of beds in facilities to care for those who need them.

“These people deserve to receive mental health skills in a place other than a prison,” Regalado said. “Law enforcement can no longer assume responsibility for the treatment and response to Oklahoma’s mental health crisis. We need to see relief in the form of long-term treatment facilities, adequate funding of mental health treatment, and a substantial increase in public mental health. beds.”

2 News reached ODMHSAS and received no response from them.

However, they shared a statement on their website saying the lawsuit would “withdraw money needed for treatment programs and would require the agency to spend more than $100 million to build and maintain hundreds of beds new forensics, despite data proving that this is unnecessary. .’

However, Regalado said that in 2020, there were only 559 public mental health treatment beds in the state. He said it boils down to a lack of initiative by the state department to fix the problem.

“We’ve donated one of our pods, which holds about 93 people at the jail, to start a mental health rehab,” Regalado said. “But again, it can’t just be the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office or law enforcement as a whole that continues to find these answers. We have a whole division of our government, ODMH, with a ridiculous budget that is supposed to come up with these things. .”

Regalado said ODMHSAS was on board with the bridge idea from the moment he proposed it. But a year passed and they supported the idea only in talk, not in action.

The aforementioned budget, DA Kunzweiler said, is about half a billion dollars.

“It’s just inconceivable to me that people who are assigned to take care of their fellow Oklahomans would try to find ways to ignore them, to neglect them for purposes that are just lost on me,” Kunzweiler said.

In January, the governor appointed a new commissioner to the state agency. Although it’s only been a few months, Kunzweiler said there should be more changes by now.

“It’s going to take guts for Commissioner (Allie) Friesen to say, ‘Okay guys, you’ve all been on this watch for the last fifteen years, you should have fixed this before I got on the scene.’ I’m bringing a new group. of people in my leadership We may not know everything, but we’re going to fix it,’” Kunzweiler said.

U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell would have to accept the settlement, which would then need approval from the Oklahoma Legislature.

Once accepted, a 90-day planning period will be established to meet the goals outlined in the agreement to better serve those in custody who need mental health care.

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