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Transfer Of Legal Positions At Kansas Mental Hospitals Raises Concerns

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Kansas News Service

The head of the legal department at Larned State Hospital will be transferred to Topeka later this month, a move that has some western Kansas attorneys concerned the distance could throw a wrench in the process of committing people who need mental health treatment.

In addition to that general counsel job, a legal assistant position will be transferred to the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services central office at the end of May. The move, first reported in the Larned Tiller and Toiler, involves two of four positions at Larned’s legal department.

Two of three legal positions from Osawatomie State Hospital also will be moved to Topeka, said Susan Andrews, chief counsel for KDADS.

Both hospitals treat Kansans believed to be a danger to themselves or others because of mental health issues. Larned also has a program to treat sexually violent predators who have completed their prison sentences but aren’t deemed safe for release.

Andrews said KDADS previously transferred some legal functions, including those related to the sexually violent predator program and lawsuits involving the state hospitals, to its central office.

Moving additional positions to the central office will allow the department to use its legal staff more efficiently, she said, because an employee who previously focused on one state hospital can assist with other KDADS functions.

“It’s important to know that our agency is much larger than the state hospitals,” she said. “Other consumers are also Kansas citizens and require quality legal services.”

However, some in the legal community are concerned that transferring the positions could lead to communication breakdowns, said John Settle, county attorney in Pawnee County, whose county seat is Larned. The legal services department at Larned works with the court system to ensure patients receive due process while being involuntarily committed for mental health treatment, he said.

The law has strict time constraints for how quickly those patients must have a hearing, so any communication delays could create issues, Settle said. He said a meeting with KDADS leadership last week didn’t address his concerns.

“It makes no sense to us that the one thing that has worked well over the years is being changed and moved to Topeka,” he said. The legal department staff members “are kind of the one key cog that keeps everything going, in my view.”

Andrews said the general counsels could take on other work without shortchanging the hospitals, and the person doing legal scheduling will remain at each of the state hospitals.

KDADS hasn’t done an analysis of costs or savings from the change, she said.

“We’re not cutting positions or terminating anyone,” she said. “We certainly will do anything possible to avoid any local law enforcement, sheriffs, attorneys having any more work.”

Larned has faced hospital staffing shortages that earlier this year led to the relocation of some mental health inmates.

Some legal staff from the Topeka KDADS office already work in Larned — which is about 210 miles southwest of Topeka — two days a week, Andrews said. The department will determine if some people should spend more days on site in Larned or if other staff also should go west for a day or two if caseloads require it, she said.

Jeanne Schumacher, assistant to the Morton County attorney, said moving jobs out of a small, rural city like Larned creates other concerns.

“I know the people who work in Larned have been there a long time, and they’re not just going to get up and move,” she said.

Schumacher said she hadn’t had issues in her dealings with Larned legal staff, which she said were limited to a few civil commitments a year.

“I can spend 10 minutes on the phone and have (a hearing) all set up,” she said. “I just don’t know how that’s going to communicate as well, being in Topeka.”

Rebecca Faurot, county attorney for Scott County, said she didn’t have enough information yet to have an opinion on whether moving the positions will affect services. She said the Larned legal department had worked well when she contacted them, which was typically 10 or fewer times in a year.

“I don’t have the foresight to know how it will function,” she said. “I don’t really know how they’re going to structure it.”

Megan Hart is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach her on Twitter @meganhartMC

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