Consultant Becomes D.C. Mental Health Boss

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By Sewell Chan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2001; 12:00 AM

Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday tapped a consultant to the city's Commission on Mental Health Services to lead the agency's emergence from court-ordered receivership and broaden its mission from hospital care to outreach and treatment in the community.

Martha B. Knisley, 52, a senior consultant with Technical Assistance Collaborative Inc. in Boston and a former state mental health commissioner in Pennsylvania and Ohio, will direct a new Department of Mental Health, which the D.C. Council created through an emergency law passed Tuesday. Within six months, the department will take over the responsibilities of the commission, which serves 7,500 clients annually through St. Elizabeths Hospital, two mental health centers and a network of services provided by more than 20 private contractors throughout the city.

"We will give special attention to the fiscal and clinical integrity of our programs," Knisley said at a news conference. "We will make sure our dollars will reach all children that they can, all adults with mental illness that they can, so that you all can reach your promise and dreams."

Knisley, who starts April 23, faces a daunting task. The commission was placed under court-ordered receivership in June 1997, the culmination of a class-action lawsuit filed by mental health advocates in 1974. Scott H. Nelson resigned as receiver last year under pressure from advocates who said he was an ineffective manager. The city agreed to his departure in exchange for a temporary overseer who would manage the department's return to local control.

On Monday, Norma Holloway Johnson, chief judge of U.S. District Court, approved a plan by transitional receiver Dennis R. Jones to overhaul the commission by separating its oversight and direct-care functions. Knisley worked with Jones to develop that plan.

The new department will have expanded monitoring, licensing and certification powers and, unlike the commission, will coordinate Medicaid and other funds to support a citywide mental health delivery system.

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