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Mental Health Association goes mum on problems

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of November 1, 2012)

On the heels of troubling revelations about two employees, the Mental Health Association has circled the wagons, refusing to provide any further information about its hiring practices or personnel policies, and channeling all questions to a lawyer who offers few answers.

About the only word from the organization last week was that the employee most recently linked to improper behavior, counselor Michael Fitzgerald, is no longer with the MHA. The other employee whose background was the subject of an earlier Vero Beach 32963 story, clinical director Irene Acosta, was placed on unpaid leave in September.

The MHA offers a variety of mental health services to the needy in Indian River County. In its tax statement, MHA says it helps about 2,000 people a month through its walk-in center and intervention programs to deal with battering, abuse, domestic violence and eating disorders. 

The nonprofit calls itself a public charity because most of its nearly $2 million annual budget comes from local tax dollars, other public and government sources, and philanthropy. As such, a growing number of people say it needs to be increasingly transparent about what it is doing in order to reassure the public and regain trust.

Lenora Ritchie, executive director of the Robert F. and Eleonora McCabe Foundation, which gave about $123,000 to MHA last year, said:  “We very much care about information coming out of the association and questions being answered.  We want to know the truth.”

“While you can see why MHA would not want to be tried in the press, the organization still needs to operate in the sunshine,” said former MHA board chairman Bill Helmly.

Several former MHA employees who left the organization of their own accord, several board members who resigned before the current matters surfaced, and at least one generous donor have complained about their experiences with MHA management and the need for public accountability at the nonprofit.

In a statement last week, MHA President Kristine Sarkauskas said she was determined that the MHA board of directors be provided all of the information necessary to “expeditiously and wisely ensure that the people of Indian River County receive the highest level of mental health care possible.”

However, a closed board meeting with attorney Helen Scott and Sarkauskas to discuss hiring practices and policy was cancelled last Thursday because of the hurricane threat.  The nonprofit has not said when it will be rescheduled.

In the Fitzgerald case, the problems began in April when an MHA patient told Fitzgerald’s superior, Acosta, that he was touching her inappropriately in private counseling sessions and sending her flirty text messages.

According to Acosta and MHA board chairman Bob Young, Acosta reported Fitzgerald’s alleged behavior to MHA President Kristine Sarkauskas. Her reaction, they said, was to tell Acosta to remove Fitzgerald from one-on-one counseling sessions with women.

But Sarkauskas kept him as an MHA counselor under contract.

The patient’s allegations about his inappropriate touching carried more weight because Fitzgerald’s counseling license was suspended from 1992 to 1995 for having sex with a patient in Tampa.

Nevertheless, his work with MHA did not end until Vero Beach 32963 wrote this fall about the patient’s allegations and Fitzgerald’s earlier license suspension – both of which Acosta and Young say Sarkauskas had been made aware of six months earlier.

That gap raises the question of how Sarkauskas deals with troubling issues if they aren’t brought to the public’s attention by the press.

In the case of Acosta, only after Vero Beach 32963 revealed that she was not licensed to practice – and had been arrested and convicted in 2005 for practicing without a license in Kissimmee – did Sarkauskas place her on unpaid leave.

Prior to that, Acosta practiced without a license with Sarkauskas’ knowledge, according to both what Acosta said and what Sarkauskas told Vero Beach 32963 after questions were raised about her credentials in mid-September. 

Sarkauskas was paid over $100,000 last year.