A state representative who has been critical of the Mental Health Department’s plans for the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center in St. Louis is more in agreement with the department’s director than it might seem.

Rep. Gina Walsh (D-St. Louis) opposes plans to downsize Bellefontaine, plans that went into effect in March. Walsh objects to the elimination of 125 positions as well as the transfer of 150 mentally disabled patients from Bellefontaine to private care. The state made the moves after abandoning plans to form a public-private partnership at Bellefontaine. That fell through when none of the agencies that responded to a request for proposals met state standards.

The State Department of Mental Health plans to build a new, $18 million, facility at Bellefontaine. It will care for 52 profoundly disabled mental patients. Bellefontaine at one time cared for 300 mentally ill patients.

Walsh supports state-run facilities and doesn’t believe private agencies can handle the difficult cases that are routine at Bellefontaine. She objects to private care even when it’s pointed out that in the past patients have been neglected and abused at the center.

"If that is the case, then we need to staff them properly. We need to train the staff properly and we need to pay them a living wage," Walsh says, "Those are three things that we don’t often do in this state."

She gets no argument from Mental Health Director Keith Schafer who says direct care staff get about $10.20 an hour.

"That’s a little bit above McDonalds," Schafer says, "but the work these folks have to do is extremely stressful."

Schafer says there’s no doubt mental health workers need more money. Schafer says he’s disheartened by the fact that few mental health workers now make work with the Department of Mental Health their career. He denies, though, allegations that the reduction of the Bellefontaine workforce places any patient at risk. Schafer points out only 34 of the 125 positions eliminated were occupied. Bellefontaine now employs 520 and Schafer says that is plenty to meet the needs of the facility.

Walsh, though, says insufficient staffing levels create a poor environment for patients.

"There’s your answer right there," Walsh says, "If you have the right amount of employees, these incidents (abuse of patients) will reduce." 

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