County worried about impact of Justice Department report on ESS

ELLISVILLE — The Economic Development Authority of Jones County lists Ellisville State School as the county’s third largest employer.With more than 1,500 on its employment roster, the Ellisville-based health care facility falls behind only Howard Industries and South Central Regional Medical Center as the county’s top employer.

Ellisville Mayor Tim Waldrup said Ellisville State School has played a vital role in the city and Jones County, as a whole, for a number of years. The mayor said ESS has given the area an economic boost since opening its doors more than 90 years ago.

“We’ve provided jobs for the citizens of Jones County, as well as neighboring communities,” said ESS executive director Renee Brett. “We have an annual payroll of about $58 million.”

Since ESS plays such a “significant role in the growth and development of the county,” Waldrup and other Jones County officials are concerned about how pending changes to the state’s mental health system will impact future operations of the historic institution.

ESS and other institutions operating as part of the state’s mental health system have come under scrutiny by the U.S. Justice Department for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that ensures that those with mental disabilities have a right to live in their communities rather than institutions.

The Department of Justice recently concluded that thousands of Mississippians with disabilities or mental illness are unnecessarily institutionalized. As a result, DOJ has called for the state to move individuals with disabilities or mental illness out of institutions like ESS and into a more community-based program.

Among suggestions listed by DOJ to help correct problems is the state should “divert money and admissions from institutions to community care” and “reassess current institutionalized persons and retrain staff.”

“This report from the Justice Department will change the face of mental health services in the state of Mississippi,” said ESS Director Renee Brett. “Everybody’s biggest fear is closure. Employees here are constantly asking: ‘Are we going to close.’”

Brett and other mental health officials are working to find a way for their facilities to continue to serve their various communities. Still, Brett said chances are ESS won’t be the same institution that has been a part of Jones County for nearly 100 years.

“I have known about possible changes for quite a while now,” said EDA director Mitch Stennett. “It’s something the Justice Department brought to the attention of state officials years ago.”

Noting that it’s one of the largest employers in the county, he said “their jobs are generally good jobs; jobs that provide good benefits.

“They have always been cooperative with EDA,” added Stennett. “Every time we call on them, they have responded in a positive way.”

Stennett, who has worked in Jones County for 21 years, said he was first introduced to ESS in the mid-1970′s while working as a fundraising volunteer in Booneville. He was among the volunteers who traveled to Ellisville to deliver collected funds to ESS.

“I was impressed back then and I am even more impressed now,” said Stennett. “I’ve been here to actually see what they do to help people.

“They not only have a significant impact on the lives of the people they serve, but they have a major impact on this community, as well. They have been a boost to the economy.

“I know they will respond to meet whatever challenges may come up in the future.”

Andy Dial, president of the Jones County Board of supervisors, said that although state officials have been aware of the DOJ investigation for years, it doesn’t erase the fear and uncertainty everyone is feeling at this point.

Dial gives kudos to the ESS administration and staff for their handling of what is “indeed a tough situation.”

“The job they are doing at the state school is commendable,” he said. “Ellisville State School is a viable institution in this community. It’s been an asset to Jones County and other counties as well.

“Families from all over the state have people at the state school,” he said. “It also employees numerous people from Jones County and other places.”

Dial said when businesses like ESS have stood as a pillar in a community for so long, people tend to take them for granted.

“They’ve been around so long, you never think there is a possibility of them closing,” said Dial. “We want to see the state school continue to grow. It has helped provide healthcare and education for those people with mental and learning disabilities for years.

“I personally know a number of them who have gone on to get jobs in the community and become productive citizens.”

Ellisville State School opened its doors in January 1921. It provides comprehensive services to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It offers services to individuals in a residential setting and provides an array of programs and services in the community through the Community Services System.

Today ESS has a population of 437 on the main campus in Ellisville and serves more than 1,000 individuals in community based programs in 31 counties. Brett said the main campus has a residential capacity of 500.

“It is the goal of Ellisville State School to provide each individual with the appropriate services so that each will develop to the maximum of his or her potential,” said Brett. “Through treatment and training, it’s our desire to place each individual in his or her least restrictive environment.”

This goal is consistent with state and national policy regarding service programs for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Dial said he has one major concern. He doesn’t want those who are in need of help to end up on the streets or in somebody’s jail.

“These people need help and don’t need to be locked up in jail. They don’t need to be left out on the streets with no place to go either.

“I hope they can come up with something that’s good for all parties involved,” said Dial.

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