Landmark lawsuit for the mentally ill ends after 33 years

By The National Psychologist Editor
January 1, 2004 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

The landmark case widely credited with inspiring reform of the nation’s mental health laws came to an end Dec. 5 in an Alabama courtroom after 33 years. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson dismissed the case, saying the state has lived up to its obligations under a 2000 settlement to provide necessary services, primarily in the community, and to treat the mentally ill with dignity.

“Wyatt is now federal law,” said Judge Thompson, recognizing the case’s enduring national significance. The Wyatt case, named for Ricky Wyatt who was placed in a state hospital when he was 15, was taken to the federal court in Montgomery in 1970 on behalf of Wyatt and others like him that advocates for the mentally ill said were “warehoused” in state institutions in violation of their civil rights. Wyatt, now 49, was released in 1973 but the court retained jurisdiction to oversee reform of the Alabama mental health system.

The standards set in Wyatt for people with mental disabilities — the right to treatment, the right to services in the least restrictive setting possible and the right to privacy and dignity — are now incorporated in federal regulations and state laws across the country.

“The Wyatt case created mental health law,” said Ira Burnim, legal director for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C. Burnim has represented the plaintiffs since 1981. “It forged the tool to end horrible abuses in state institutions and provided the spark for three decades of civil rights advocacy on everything from equal access to public education to fair housing in the community,” Burnim said.

An aunt placed Wyatt in Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa, hoping he would learn better behavior there. Testimony in the case revealed Wyatt often slept on wet floors in crowded wards, was heavily medicated and regularly locked in a cell-like room. Appearing for the first time in the case that bears his name, Wyatt sat with Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and other state officials as the case was dismissed.

In 1971, the late Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. issued an order establishing the right to treatment. A year later, he defined that right in a set of standards for humane conditions and adequate treatment, based on the work of a team of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Law and Social Policy and their experts in mental health and mental retardation.

The lawyers and experts involved in the Wyatt collaboration went on to form the nonprofit advocacy organization now known as the Bazelon Center. For the last three decades, the group has pursued system-reform litigation on behalf of people with mental disabilities.

Burnim and his successor as lead counsel for the plaintiffs, James Tucker, expressed some concern about ending the court’s oversight of Alabama’s mental health system, but agreed that the time has come.

“We’re optimistic about the state’s sustained commitment to the reforms Wyatt initiated,” Burnim said. “The state has made tremendous strides — especially in recent years, thanks to Mental Health Commissioner Kathy Sawyer.”

Gov. Riley assured Thompson that the state will assume responsibility for implementing the standards set by the court, “not only financially but in every way.” The Montgomery Advertiser, in its coverage of the hearing, noted that criticisms voiced in the ’70s that the court was opening the doors of state hospitals without the availability of adequate alternative treatment have not been totally silenced. Three current patients at Bryce voiced concern over conditions there and asked Thompson not to relinquish the court’s control over the system. They complained of dirty clothes and the use by staff of racial slurs and threats of medicinal injections to keep patients quiet. Others presenting unsworn statements at the hearing said the state is closing and consolidating large institutions in a move that is forcing out some patients who are too impaired to receive proper treatment in group homes and other community settings. Thompson agreed the system isn’t perfect but added that no federal judge could make it so. He said the state appears ready to manage an imperfect system on its own.

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