Editorials

Editorial: Murder highlights mental health needs in Kansas

The sad case of Brandon Brown’s conviction for second-degree murder in the state hospital in Osawatomie shows the deteriorated state of Kansas’ mental health system, writes the editorial board.
The sad case of Brandon Brown’s conviction for second-degree murder in the state hospital in Osawatomie shows the deteriorated state of Kansas’ mental health system, writes the editorial board.

In December, Brandon Brown’s story reached its sad climax in a Kansas courtroom, where he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The Star introduced you to Brown in June 2015. Brown, then 30 years old, had been in and out of treatment for mental illness for most of his adult life. He eventually landed in a nursing home in Kiowa County near the Oklahoma border.

After a couple of scuffles with other residents, Brown was sent to the state hospital in Osawatomie for more focused diagnosis and treatment. Osawatomie, facing overcrowding problems, treated Brown for a week, then sent him back to the nursing home.

Brown beat a nursing home resident to death three days later. He pleaded no contest to second-degree murder, and a judge issued the 20-year sentence.

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Untangling this bleak tale is difficult. Some state officials have long insisted that Brown’s behavior was unpredictable and that no amount of counseling or medicine would have stopped it. To blame the killing on overcrowding or improper care, they say, is to lessen Brown’s responsibility for his behavior.

The family of the victim largely shares this view.

But others — including Brown’s father, James — insist Kansas did not provide Brown with the help he needed. “He should have been in Osawatomie longer,” James Brown recently told the Kansas News Service, which examined the story in depth. “You can’t tell me he was in his right mind.”

Precisely apportioning responsibility for the tragedy may be impossible. But Kansans can still learn from it: The state’s mental health system is underfunded, its employees overworked and its facilities substandard.

Agencies that deal with the mentally ill understand this. Any sheriff’s deputy or police officer will tell you jail cells are filled with people who need counseling, not incarceration. Kansas lacks the community beds to treat the mentally ill.

In 2015, a state committee was blunt: “An inadequate safety net,” it found, “jeopardizes the well-being of (mentally ill) individuals, puts communities at risk and places an undue burden on local resources, including law enforcement.”

Yet the Kansas budget crisis has crimped the state’s ability to fully fund its mental health facilities. Conditions at Osawatomie State Hospital were so bad the federal government stopped reimbursing the state for patients there, forcing state taxpayers to take up the slack.

Federal re-certification of Osawatomie is pending.

Kansas’ refusal to expand Medicaid also has meant less money for mental health treatment, and recent state cuts in Medicaid reimbursement rates have clobbered community-based mental health centers.

Treatment of the mentally ill must remain a top priority for Kansas legislators, and spending for treatment should be increased. People with severe mental illnesses simply can’t take care of themselves, and we all suffer as a result.

Taxpayers will foot the bill to incarcerate Brandon Brown for the next 20 years. His father says he wants to make sure stories like his son’s don’t continue to play out in this state. Surely most Kansans would agree.

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