Feds warn NC officials against lagging progress on court deal to move mentally ill from homes

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — North Carolina officials aren't living up to an out-of-court agreement to move potentially thousands of people with serious mental illness out of adult care homes and into their communities, government lawyers warned.

The state failed to provide housing and employment help to 708 adults by July as required under the 2012 deal, according to lawyers in the U.S. Justice Department's disability rights section. The state also hasn't filled gaps in services the mentally ill need to live in the community, their Nov. 6 letter said.

"We recognize the State's efforts to date have improved the lives of hundreds of people with serious mental illness. And we recognize the dedication and the hard work the State has undertaken to implement the Agreement," the DOJ letter said.

But further court action is possible unless the state shows it's living up to the deal, the letter said.

The state spent about $20 million last year and is spending $27 million this year to implement the agreement, said Martha Knisley, who was hired to independently review North Carolina's compliance with the agreement. About two dozen states are facing similar pressure and most are having difficulty complying, the Raleigh-based Knisley said Monday.

"The Department of Health and Human Services has demonstrated very good faith in meeting its obligations," her report last month said. "The tasks undertaken by the state agencies in this matter require a substantial commitment of leadership, energy and resources."

The state agency has worked hard at meeting its obligations, DHHS Deputy Secretary Dave Richard said.

"We are absolutely committed to working with the DOJ lawyers," he said. "We believe we have made substantial progress toward implementing this agreement over the past three years."

Former North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue's administration signed the deal which requires that 3,000 people who otherwise would be living in adult care homes or mental hospitals would get affordable housing in their communities by mid-2020. The state's total price tag was estimated at nearly $300 million.

Justice Department had threatened a lawsuit in 2011 because it said thousands of people with mental illness were segregated from society in adult care homes. Many had been released from state psychiatric hospitals and lacked access to community treatment.

Follow Emery P. Dalesio at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/emery-p-dalesio

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