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'Do your dang job': Tulsa officials back settlement with OK mental health agency

Posted at 10:18 PM, Jun 20, 2024

TULSA, Okla. — Tulsa County residents took legal action against the state department of mental health.

Over a year since a lawsuit was filed, the state is looking to settle.

Four unnamed residents filed a suit against the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services in March of 2023 as they waited for court-ordered mental health support.

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

“We had to say ‘please, you need to get them out of our jail, this is not a treatment facility, this is a jail,'" said Kunzweiler. "Only to have the Department of Mental Health put them on a waiting list where they languished, days and 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 deal with the state's mental health sector, Kunzweiler said he has had enough.

"It took citizens who are victims to force a lawsuit to get us to this point, so our ask is just do your dang job," said Kunzweiler.

A proposed settlement would give ODMHSAS a maximum of 21 days to provide mental health care to an individual in county jail deemed incompetent by a court.

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

"These people deserve to receive mental health competency in a place other than a jail," said Regalado. "Law enforcement can no longer shoulder the responsibility of treatment and response to the mental health crisis in Oklahoma. We must see relief in the form of long-term treatment facilities, proper funding of mental health treatment, and a substantial increase in public mental health beds."

2 News reached out to ODMHSAS, and did not hear back from them.

However, they did share a statement on their website stating this lawsuit would 'take away needed money for treatment programs and would require the agency to spend upwards of $100 million to build and maintain hundreds of new forensic beds, despite data proving this to be unnecessary.'

However, Regalado said in 2020, there were only 559 public beds for mental health treatment across the state. He said it comes down to the lack of an initiative from the state department to fix the problem.

"We’ve offered up one of our pods, which holds about 93 people at the jail, to start a mental health competency restoration," said Regalado. "But again, it can't just be the Tulsa County Sheriff's office or law enforcement as a whole continuing to find these answers. We have a whole division of our government, ODMH, with a ridiculous budget that should be coming up with these things."

Regalado said ODMHSAS was on board with the pod idea from the minute he proposed it. But it's been a year, and they've only been supportive of the idea in talks, not actions.

That aforementioned budget, D.A. Kunzweiler said, is about half a billion dollars.

"​It's just inconceivable to me that people who are appointed to take care of their fellow Oklahoma citizens would try to figure out ways to ignore them, neglect them for purposes that are just lost on me," said Kunzweiler.

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

"It’s going to take Commissioner [Allie] Friesen the courage to basically say ‘Alright you guys were all on this watch for the last fifteen years, you should have solved this before I arrived on the scene. I’m bringing in a new group of people in my leadership. We might not know everything, but we’re going to solve the problem,’” said Kunzweiler.

US District Judge Gregory Frizzell has to accept the settlement, which then needs approval from the Oklahoma Legislature.

Once accepted, a 90-day planning period would be set to meet the goals outlined in the settlement to serve better those in custody needing mental health care.

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