Fearing liability, Broward changes course on helping homeless in mental health court

By Noreen Marcus,  

Broward Administrator Bertha Henry, left, and County Court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren

Brandishing research into federal law won Broward County Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren what she wants: a unified approach to sheltering homeless people who appear in her mental health court.

Until a meeting on Tuesday, the judge and other advocates for the mentally ill were protesting a county policy that shut off the only non-jail option for non-violent and homeless offenders, Broward Outreach Center. Without warning, the center informed Lerner-Wren on Nov. 3 that it would no longer accept direct referrals from her court.

“The only shelter we’ve ever had access to is BOC,” she said at the meeting hosted by Broward County Vice Mayor Mark Bogen. Bogen ejected from the conference room a Florida Bulldog reporter and other attendees including Public Defender Howard Finkelstein while Lerner-Wren and County Administrator Bertha Henry worked out a solution. Then Bogen ushered everyone back inside—except Finkelstein, who had left in a huff.

“I don’t do secret meetings, nor should any elected official,” the public defender said later.

Bogen, an attorney, insisted the meeting was outside the range of Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law. He said a reporter’s presence made him “uncomfortable” and that it was “rude” for attendees to arrive with an unannounced “entourage.”

Reporters make Broward Commissioner Mark Bogen ‘uncomfortable.’

The resolution Henry and Lerner-Wren reached is to include Misdemeanor Mental Health Court in an assessment process through data-sharing technology with related hospital, jail and community facilities. Human Services Department director Kimm Campbell signed onto it, saying the judge will be designated an “entry point” to the social services system.

What this means to Lerner-Wren is that now, for the first time, she will be able to refer homeless people to the Broward Partnership shelter. “I am pleased,” she said. “This opens up more resources than I ever dreamed of.”

Finkelstein said he was happy for the judge, but the solution falls far short of what he had hoped to accomplish. “That’s very well for the few people in mental health court,” he said. “It doesn’t help the many more people in jail who are mentally ill and homeless.” He said he will push to be considered an entry point for jail inmates, so they too can benefit from the social services system.

Americans with Disabilities Act

Lerner-Wren came to Tuesday’s meeting armed with a sheaf of research into the Americans with Disabilities Act. After the meeting she said the ADA issue had been “fundamentally important” in convincing county officials to put aside the controversial referral policy. She said going forward it will be best to address disability issues before “I’m starting to yell, ‘ADA, ADA.’ “

The judge and Finkelstein had been urging county officials to reinstate the BOC referral process or risk liability for violating federal law that shields disabled people, including the mentally ill, from discrimination.  Because the referral process lengthened their jail time for non-violent crimes, it countered the basic goal of mental health court and the law’s intent, Lerner-Wren and Finkelstein argued.

Finkelstein described a process in which homeless mentally ill people must apply for shelter beds on-line without court assistance. Adding “insult to injury, the disabled inmates themselves have no telephone access to the homeless hotline,” he wrote in a Nov. 28 letter to Broward Mayor Beam Furr and commissioners.

“This one-size-fits-all approach will prevent the people who need the services from getting the services, but if your motive is to save money then this will work because nobody will get the services,” Finkelstein said in an interview with Florida Bulldog.

Furr was asked for comment on the ADA. He responded via an emailed statement that sidestepped the issue: “We are working with the Mental Health Court to ensure that persons coming through the court benefit from a comprehensive and coordinated assessment of their needs, so that we might best assist them in meeting those needs. The intent is not to cause harm, but instead to have a full understanding of an individual’s needs, which may include appropriate housing and appropriate supports for addressing a disability.”

On Nov. 7, weeks before Furr ascended to the mayor’s job, Lerner-Wren wrote to Mayor Barbara Sharief seeking to reclaim her right to make BOC referrals.

Sharief’s letter

Sharief responded in a Nov. 28 letter obtained by Florida Bulldog. She said she “must respectfully disagree” with the judge’s assertion that the county was violating the ADA by ending direct referrals from the court. She wrote that compliance with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rules requires the county to use a central intake system that ranks applicants in order of need.

“Based on the information in your letter, it appears that past referrals directly from the Mental Health Court to Broward Outreach Center were not consistent with the Coordinated Assessment requirement,” Sharief wrote.

Lerner-Wren and Finkelstein, both key players in the acclaimed, 20-year-old mental health court, aren’t the only ones concerned about the homeless referral process. The non-profit Disabled Rights Florida wrote to Henry, noting the ADA “requires that state and local governments provide appropriate integrated community settings for persons with disabilities.

“These recent circumstances in Broward County give our organization pause with respect to the level of support the county is providing to the integration of persons with disabilities in the county,” DRF legal director David Boyer said in the Nov. 20 letter. The DRF has the authority to sue governments for ADA violations. Neither Boyer nor DRF executive director Maryellen McDonald could be reached for comment.

Finkelstein was pessimistic about how well county officials will implement their end of the bargain negotiated at Tuesday’s meeting. “My experience in this county is nothing sticks because those that come after don’t remember what came before, and those that follow them won’t remember, either,” he said.

But he said he would remember Bogen’s action in making part of the meeting secret. “What I saw was a portal into Commissioner Bogen,” Finkelstein said. “His instincts are to be private, cloaked and protect his political interests. There was nothing controversial or even political about this issue that it had to be behind closed doors.”

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