ServiceNet Clients Win Phone Rights

Submitted by admin on Mon, 03/22/2004 - 00:05

ServiceNet Clients
Win Phone Rights


Posted on Mar 22, 04

Mental Health clients at a ServiceNet residence in Northampton just won a campaign for access to confidential phones.

For more than 3 years the 12 clients at the Valley Inn residence on Elm Street were denied access to confidential phone calls, crucial for emotional support and advocating for their rights.Massachusetts law, the Bill of Five Fundamental Rights for Persons with Mental Illness, Chapter 123 Section 23, protects the right to confidential access to phones.

In a campaign initiated 18 months ago, residents joined Freedom Center calling for improvements at the Valley Inn. ServiceNet took some steps, including cleaning and partly rennovating the deteriorated and filthy building (which it blamed on the landlord), and removing some staff.

In response to the demand that ServiceNet provide phones, ServiceNet replaced the house's public pay phone (which clients often could not afford to use) with a regular residential phone line located in the house's public hallway. The agency, however, ignored the need for confidential phone access.

"We kept telling them they were breaking the law, but ServiceNet was doing nothing, just nothing," said Valley Inn resident and Freedom Center organizer Lisa Sargent. "They don't take us seriously."

Freedom Center continued to press ServiceNet's upper management for change, alerted the Department of Mental Health, made the issue part of a protest on Main Street in Northampton in August of 2003, and appealed to a meeting of DMH Human Rights Officers. Finally Freedom Center advocates took the issue to the Disability Law Center, the Boston agency federally mandated to protect patients' rights in the state.

While lawyers at the Disability Law Center were initially sluggish to respond, Sargent and Freedom Center kept up the pressure, and the Disability Law Center's professional advocates eventually got involved. Says Sargent, "When lawyers stepped in, that's when ServiceNet finally changed their tune."

The solution in the end was simple -- clients now have a cordless phone, which they can use to make confidential calls in their rooms.

"Think for a moment what it would be like always making phone calls from a public place, where your landlord, counselors, and people who control your resources and services can overhear what you're saying," said Will Hall, Freedom Center co-founder who worked with Valley Inn residents on this campaign. "Now imagine that you knew this was against the law -- and the law was being ignored. How would you feel? That's the message the mental health system keeps giving to clients -- the message that you are a second class citizen and don't matter. And now that clients do have a phone thanks to their own efforts, ServiceNet hasn't even apologized."

Says Freedom Center advocate Amy Bookbinder, who also worked on the issue, "As a provider of social services, Service Net has a responsibility to support and help empower its clients, not allow their basic human rights to be violated. We hope that future human rights violations brought to the attention of Service Net staff will be handled properly."

Added Hall, ""We wish treatment like this was an exception. Unfortunately, it's the tip of the iceberg. Many people get good care at ServiceNet, but far too many don't. What's alarming is the number of people Freedom Center hears from who have been abused by ServiceNet policies, medical and other staff. When ServiceNet doesn't listen clients bring these complaints to us and we do what we can. When mental health clients have to look to an outside volunteer group to get follow through on protecting their rights, then the system has failed."

"It's a great victory," says Sargent about Valley Inn's new cordless phone. "One down...I don't know how many more to go."

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