Thursday, February 2, 2012

How many are overlooked right here in Knoxville? Spend an evening under the I-40 bridge downtown and you will see.

D.C. report: Efforts to help troubled White House retiree James fell short. 
Common sense should have raised an alarm, but it didn't.
 Washington, DC’s inspector general has released a damning examination of the city’s neglect of Theodoric James, an elegant White House retiree who worked under 10 presidents before dying in squalor last summer. Family and neighbors reported his alarming deterioration for more than two years to a host of city officials who repeatedly declined to intervene.

In an 81-page report, Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby said 70 DC employees participated “in some manner” in “saving the offending property” where James lived “but not the property owner.”

Willoughby’s description exposes a dutiful bureaucracy that meticulously communicated and collaborated to visit, clean up and repair James’s DC rowhouse – where buckets of feces and urine filled the front porch and rats ruled – but failed to help the desperately ill man inside.

“Unfortunately, neither (Executive Office of the Mayor) employees nor most of the mental health and social service professionals seemed willing to look beyond the most conservative interpretation of the terms ‘mental illness’ and ‘self-neglect,’ despite what they observed and what common sense must have signaled to them about the ineluctable ramifications of his aberrant behavior,” Willoughby wrote in “Sufficiency of District Agency Services Provided to a District Resident" (Jan. 2012).

“As one agency participant noted, given (James’s) behavior, common sense should have raised an alarm.”

But it didn’t.

At least 34 visits were made to the house by representatives from different DC departments, who managed to dispatch a hazmat crew to remove wastes, clear out trash and vegetation, make structural repairs and bill thousands of dollars for their efforts before James, 71, died of heat exposure on Aug. 1, 2011.

Willoughby offers four recommendations to avoid a repeat of such uncommon sense. One is modification of the city’s civil commitment law “where existing language impedes efforts to provide the type of assistance called for by the severity of the conditions.”

We have no objections to the inspector general's recommendation, but wordsmithing alone isn’t going to remedy the neglect that characterized DC's response to James and that characterizes innumerable other cities' responses to countless others suffering from untreated severe mental illness. Until government jurisdictions start acknowledging that some people are too ill to save themselves and stop ignoring the civil commitment laws they could use to intervene in psychiatric crisis, men and women like Theodoric James will continue to suffer needlessly and to die alone.

And don't even get us started on how many of these people could be treated for the dollars spent paying for 70 bureaucrats, 34 house calls, a hazmat crew and an 81-page report.

See "Efforts to help troubled White House retiree James fell short" in the Washington Post (Feb. 1).C
See "10 buckets of feces but no 'danger' to self or others?" from our blog archive.
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