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COMMISSIONERS SHIFT ON WILLIE M PROGRAM SUPPORT GROWING FOR INDEPENDENT REVIEW

COMMISSIONERS SHIFT ON WILLIE M PROGRAM SUPPORT GROWING FOR INDEPENDENT REVIEW

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The stories have been told for at least a year, and probably longer.

A Guilford County Area Mental Illness program that treats violent adolescents, frequently in residential settings, is reportedly out of control.Critics of the Willie M program for disturbed youngsters have informally recounted their fears and criticisms of the program to individual members of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners since last year.

Meanwhile, the program gets rave reviews during state evaluations, and the mental illness staff and board continue to defend the program.

Most of the commissioners had previously decided that it was business best left to the area board.

But that view is changing.

Commissioners' Chairman Chuck Forrester announced last week that he wants an independent review of the program, and he has enough support from the other commissioners to get it. Jackie Manzi and Calvin Hinshaw, longtime critics of the program, have both endorsed the need for a review, as has Jim Kirkpatrick.

The Willie M program is a state-mandated and state-funded program for youngsters with violent behavior, so called after the landmark 1980 lawsuit that established the program. One of the plaintiffs was identified only as Willie M. Guilford County provides treatment in 16 group homes.

Forrester met last week with Area Mental Illness Director Laurence Bivens and sent a letter this week to Mental Illness Board Chairwoman Rebecca Davis. The letter says that the commissioners understand and appreciate the difficulty of the area board's work, but that the Willie M program still needs: ``To be re-thought, not just for Guilford County, but for the entire state.'

County Manager John Witherspoon is also arranging a joint meeting of the boards to discuss problems with the program, and the course for a review.

Some of the commissioners, though, say they must be careful not to alienate the mental illness board and other commissioner-appointed boards, by interfering. Dot Kearns, a former social worker, has urged working with the board. So has Katie Dorsett.

``I want the area board to let us know what their experience with the program has been,' Kearns said in an interview. ``We need to sit with the area board and they need to tell us the total picture.

``The most difficult thing that I've had to deal with the last two years is that a majority of the board is willing to act on partial information, on just one side of the story.'

But Manzi, who occasionally attends area mental illness board meetings, has not been impressed with the way the board has handled inquiries and complaints about the program.

``I have sat for seven months and listened to people talk about this program and the area board has not been moved to look at it, study it or review it,' Manzi told the other commissioners.

In fact, area board member Wayne Stutts also told the commissioners Monday that a majority of the board had not even been responsive to him. He says he's tried ``every month since January' to discuss the program with the full board, but has been opposed.

David Reilly, former area board chairman, defends the area program. He says that the state recently conducted a review of the Willie M program and found it to be exemplary, and that the commissioners should review that report before issuing a call for another review.

``I think the commissioners should show more confidence in the ability and policy making decisions of the area board,' Reilly said. ``The review of the program has already been done at the state level, and it found that this program is exemplary. It was very thorough and complimentary. I don't see what another review could do.'

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