Advocate Argues Local CSB Erred In Defunding Top Peer Job: Chilling Impact



(6-24-16)  A local peer advocate asked if he could respond to a recent blog that I posted about our mental health board’s decision to defund the top peer job in our community. Yesterday afternoon, three Fairfax groups asked residents to sign a petition calling on the Community Services Board to restore funding for the Director of the Office of Consumer and Family Affairs. )

By Michael Pendrak

The Fairfax/Falls Church Community Services Board’s recent decision to save money by not filling the position of Director of Consumer and Family Affairs (DCFA) has devastated the peer/consumer community.  It has caused a chill in relations and mistrust between those who deliver and receive mental health services. Instead, of recognizing and appreciating the voices of peers/consumers, we feel the CSB board is practicing tokenism.

Eight years ago, Fairfax County undertook a detailed examination of its mental health services and issued a list of recommends in what is known as the Beeman Report. One of its highest priorities was to “Establish an Office of Consumer and Family Affairs with well-defined responsibilities and a leader who reports directly to the CSB Executive Director.”  (At the time, persons with mental health experience were more commonly known as consumers as in, ‘consumers of mental health services.’)

The Beeman Commission urged and the Board of County Supervisors agreed that there should be an office dedicated specifically and exclusively to representing the interests of consumers and their family members in Fairfax-Falls Church.  That office was to be free from interference from anyone below the level of the CSB Executive Director.  The Beeman Commission noted it was vital that there be peer leadership at the highest and all levels of the CSB.

At present, there are leaders among peers, but there are no peers among the leaders in the CSB.

CSB Executive Director Tisha Deeghan’s narrow claim that the Director of Consumer and Family Affairs was specifically hired to introduce peer programs into the county, and now having accomplished that is no longer necessary, is patently untrue.  The DCFA was and is meant to be a leader, an advocate, and a mentor to peers/consumers and family members trying to navigate the complexity of the mental health system.

Cruelly, the decision to defund the office of the DCFA exposes the dismal failure of Fairfax/Falls Church to live up to its own promises. It exposes a tone deafness that is stunning. Is the board unaware of the emotional impact of trying to save money by not filling that job? Is it unaware of how that marginalizes the individuals who that office served? Is it unaware of how deflating that is to those of us who are peers/consumers?

When Dave Mangano retired, our community felt his loss.  We told him so at the various retirement events held for him. Little did we realize that with his retirement, we would lose ALL representation in the entire structure of the CSB.  This sends a clear message and disturbing message to us. We are not a priority. We don’t exist — despite lip service to the contrary.

Many of us have voiced alarm about the board’s decision. We’ve been assured at every level that our voices are valued.  We “understand your concerns,” we’re told.  But the fact remains that we currently have no voice in CSB management and no remedy is being offered.

We understand that having to listen to the voices of the peer/consumer community on a regular basis can be inconvenient.  Peers can get in the way of smooth operations because they don’t always agree with or support policies convenient to the CSB.  I’m certain that Dave Mangano was a burr under the saddle of Director Deeghan, at times.  But his voice on our behalf was vital and we admired and respected him because he spoke up in his own quiet way when something needed to be heard.  To many of us, the defunding of his position has a chilling impact. Your job could be defunded if you cause problems.

Want further proof of how little our voices matter? The decision to eliminate Mangano’s position was done without ever consulting the peer community or communicating that decision to us. Because there is no longer a Director of Consumer and Family Affairs, there is no structure now in place to communicate specifically with our community on a regular basis.

The board and Director Deeghan have divided Mangano’s job among existing managers, none of whom is a person with lived experience. This Balkanization of the Office of Consumer and Family Affairs further weakens our voices.  Especially worrisome is the decision to move the DCFA’s duties concerning Human Rights, which are basic protections against abuses by the mental health system including protection from the CSB, to the office of Compliance and Risk Management.  That office is responsible for protecting the CSB, not protecting peers/consumers.  This shift creates an adversarial relationship between the CSB and complainants in any Human Rights cases that involve the CSB, which, unfortunately, are common.  As users of the mental health system, the CSB should be fostering our rights not silencing them.

Many of us fear the CSB’s actions mark the beginning of the dismantling of what we’ve spent years building.  It may make it easier and convenient for the existing CSB management but more difficult for us, the people the CSB is supposed to serve.  With Dave gone and his position being eliminated, we feel as if we are returning to the bad old days.

Director Deeghan has pointed proudly at the number peer providers the CSB employs.  What she doesn’t reveal is the context — that out of more than ten thousand peers or clients of the CSB in Fairfax — barely three dozen are employed as peer specialists and almost all of them work part-time with low wages and no benefits.  In this respect, the CSB over which she presides is the Walmart of mental health.

Peer leaders who rely on the county for what little income they make, refuse to speak out in fear of retaliation.  “I know it’s wrong, but I just can’t take the risk [of complaining].  They sign my check,” one peer/consumer who works about half time, a typical rate of peer employees, told me.  “When Dave was here, I knew I could tell him anything and I’d be safe.”

“Sorry,” said another who I asked, “I just can’t take the chance.”

Not staffing the position of Director of Consumer and Family Affairs undermines years of struggle and hard work for us to get a seat at the table.   It violates the Principles of Recovery.  It’s a slap in the face to the Peer/Consumer community.  It has created fear in the community where leaders are reluctant to speak out for fear of retaliation.  It reveals either a profound misunderstanding of the value of peers/consumers in our system, or a cynical attempt to chip away at our rights.

This is why the CSB must reverse its decision and fund the position of Director of Consumer and Family Affairs and open up other high and mid-level management positions to peers. This is why the CSB must recognize the value that peers/consumers bring to the table and appreciate the hard fought gains we’ve made. This is the message that peers will be telling the CSB when it meets tonight, June 22, at 5 p.m. at the Merrifield Center , 8221 Willow Oaks Corporate Drive, Fairfax, Level 3, Room 409A East.

The Beeman Commission understood this nearly a decade ago. Progressive communities across the U.S. understand this too. Peer involvement is essential to recovery.  Having a Director of Consumer and Family Affairs demonstrates well-earned respect for our community.  It fosters openness and the free exchange of ideas and knowledge. It gives a much-needed voice to our community, a voice the CSB needs to hear as much as we need to speak.

It also is simply smart management.

(Michael Pendrak is a longtime peer/consumer advocate in Fairfax County who has served on the various boards of peer organizations. He is a former member of the Fairfax/Falls Church Local Human Rights Committee.)


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.