A Place That Should Know Better

Charles “Chick” Arnold has long been considered the godfather of Arizona’s mental health care system. In 1981, then a public fiduciary, he was the lead plaintiff in Arnold v. Sarn, a class action lawsuit that claimed Maricopa County and the state of Arizona were failing people with serious mental illness. He won, and the case was ultimately upheld by the Arizona Supreme Court.

But implementing change is often harder than calling for it – and the state’s mental health system bowed under pressure from a court monitor that held providers accountable.

In 2014, worried that the Arizona legislature would gut the mental health system, parties in the lawsuit – including Arnold – scrambled to write a settlement agreement that permanently removed the court monitor, and with it, much of the transparency and accountability for which the system had become known.

Now Chick Arnold regrets that the agreement wasn’t more aggressive.

In this four part series, made possible in part by financial support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, AZCIR Contributing Editor Amy Silverman explores the history and outlines the challenges, including failures of the case management system, a debate over locked psychiatric facilities, poor conditions at the state hospital, and a lack of safe housing.

Amy Silverman

Amy Silverman, an award-winning writer, editor and teacher, is a contributing editor for the Arizona center for Investigative Reporting.


PART I

A place that should know better

Arnold v. Sarn, a class action lawsuit that called for services for people with serious mental illness regardless of cost, celebrates its fortieth birthday this year. The litigation ended in 2014 with a settlement agreement that largely replaced “shall” with “may,” encouraging the system to try its best while softening requirements, and permanently doing away with a court monitor—the last remnant of robust accountability that had been in place for decades. Now Charles “Chick” Arnold, the lead plaintiff, says the agreement should have been more aggressive.

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Part I SIDEBAR

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PART II

PARTS III & IV

In crisis?

Emergency services are to be provided to any Arizonan, regardless of health insurance coverage:

  • Maricopa County: 1-800-631-1314 or 602-222-9444
  • Cochise, Graham, Greenlee, La Paz, Pima, Pinal, Santa Cruz and Yuma Counties: 1-866-495-6735
  • Apache, Coconino, Gila, Mohave, Navajo and Yavapai Counties: 1-877-756-4090
  • Gila River and Ak-Chin Indian Communities: 1-800-259-3449
  • Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community: 1-855-331-6432
  • Tohono O’odham Nation: 1-844-423-8759
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Support groups and advocacy organizations: