CONYERS -- Assistance for people with mental health issues was addressed by candidates for Rockdale County Probate Court judge at a forum held last week by the South Rockdale Civic Association.
Incumbent Probate Court Judge Lillis Brown, a Republican, and challenger Charles Mays, a Democrat, faced off in the forum held at Union United Methodist Church last Tuesday night. Democratic candidate Caycie Dix did not attend.
Brown, who has served as Probate Court judge for 20 years, said guardianships for incapacitated adults and minors are "probably the most serious cases for us ... because when I make a decision as to who is taking care of someone else, I have to make sure that they are committed and will act in the best interest of that person."
Mays, a contractor, agreed and said that he would like to see local social programs and community-related programs developed to help those individuals who come through the Probate Court.
When asked where the funding would come from to develop those types of programs, Mays said nonprofit organizations would have to come into play.
"That's why I said that the community would have to work with the court to bring these programs about," said Mays. "The state has funds, and I'm under the understanding that there are shared programs with other counties. We need to be able to reach out to individuals who are willing to come forward and lend a helping hand."
Brown said Adult Protective Services were handled in each county until 2001 when a state agency was created for that purpose.
"That is probably the worst thing that ever happened," Brown said.
The Adult Protective Services worker assigned to Rockdale County is shared with Gwinnett County, Brown said, which can lead to a tug-of-war for services. In addition, turnover in that position has been high.
"I have kind of become the unofficial mental health court," Brown said. "Mental health is something that is dear to my heart. I have seen people at the jail, people who could be productive people if we had a mental health court."
She also said it would be beneficial to have an employee in the Probate Court office to coordinate services with nonprofits. However, at this time there is no space to house that person.
Brown noted that the responsibilities of the Probate Court are set by statute, but she felt it would be appropriate for the Probate Court to handle a mental health court and that a state grant might be available for that purpose.
Mays agreed, saying that the county needs to reach out "even as far as the Legislature to get things changed so we can handle the problem of those with mental health issues."
When asked why the state doesn't institutionalize mentally ill residents, Brown explained that Georgia's mental health services operate under the theory "that people belong in the community, in their homes, to the degree that we can do that."
Brown noted that the state does not have the authority to hold mentally ill residents against their will. However, funding from federal, state and local sources is insufficient to operate the necessary community-based programs.
"The guardian can decide where they live and how they are cared for, but if they walk out then all (the guardian) can do is report it," Brown said.
The mentally ill frequently wind up in jail, become stabilized and are then released.
"It's an endless cycle that is not working, it absolutely is not working," Brown said.
Mays said that illustrates his point about the need for community involvement and said there should be an educational process to help people learn how to deal with mental health issues.
"If we as a community can come together and have effective housing in group homes, (we could house) them by being willing to be guardians for them."
In response to a question about fees collected in the Probate Court, Brown said all fees are remitted to the appropriate agency.
"Everything I collect I pay out at the end of the month," she said. "It either goes to the designated payee or it goes to Rockdale County."
"I want to continue to serve as your probate judge," Brown said in closing. "I have enjoyed every minute. It's hard to believe it's been 20 years," adding that she has the integrity, experience and passion to continue to lead the office.
Mays said he will bring a fresh perspective to the Probate Court office.
"I'm saying that I bring new energy to the position and I look forward to working with you as a community to overcome some of the problems we share and to share the perfection that Rockdale County looks forward to," he said.