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Meet two of the 80,000 people helped by the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority

Tracy Samilton
Michigan Radio

The Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority is under fire for wasting millions of its $730 million Medicaid budget on overpayments to subcontractors, which its board frequently chooses not to recoup.  

That means fewer dollars are getting to people in need.

But there's no question the authority still helps a lot of people with essential services that improve the quality of their lives. Eighty-thousand of them, in fact.

That number includes people struggling with opioid or alcohol addiction; children and adults with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder; those with conditions like autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy; multiply-impaired people dependent on round-the-clock care; and those with other physical or intellectual disabilities.

Michigan Radio has reported on the accusations of waste and corruption at DWMHA, starting with this reporton Wayne County Executive Warren Evans intervening in the authority's search for a new CEO, as well as an in-depth report on the DWMHA board's longstanding practice of allowing overbilling by its subcontractors.

You can read and listen to that report here.

Meanwhile, let's meet two of the people for whom the authority has made a big difference.

Fitting into the workplace and being part of a team for the first time

Jerome is a 27-year-old man with a ready smile.  He has an intellectual disability, and found his first full-time job last year at a family-owned window manufacturer and installer in Wayne County.

Jerome's main job is to take just-assembled window frames and run them through a machine that removes the extra pieces and rough edges.  He then finishes the frames by hand.  He also helps load unfinished frames into the shop and sometimes helps with trim work.

"I don't care about the money," he declares.  "I just care about the team and we get the job done."

Jennifer Surma-Mehdi is co owner of the business. 

"It turned out to be a really good fit," she says of the decision to hire Jerome.  "We're like a family, and he just fits in really well.  He's reliable and never misses work and — we love him."

Services for Jerome also include someone to help him manage his money, as well as placement in a small group home with two other people.

No obstacle too great to overcome 

We meet Rebecca Parten at her office in Ann Arbor, where she works as a research assistant.

Credit Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Rebecca Parten at work

The Dearborn resident is matter-of-fact about all the ways her disability affects her functioning.

"Long story short, I was born with a genetic syndrome called Escobar syndrome," she says.  "And what that means is all my joints and muscles are affected. I can't straighten out any of my joints, so my fingers — elbows, knees, I can't fully straighten them."

Parten also has severe scoliosis and has to use a ventilator at night.  Most of the time, she needs a wheelchair. She wears hearing aids because the syndrome causes partial hearing loss.  

None of that stopped her from getting an undergraduate degree in communications from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and a master's degree in social work from the university's School of Social Work in Ann Arbor. She made it through her college and graduate studies with the help of services provided through the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.

"I have staff that assist me with things like dressing, getting ready for the day, getting ready for bed. If it weren't for having those staffing hours, I wouldn't have been able to live on campus," says Parten.
Parten says she was also given some financial assistance to pay part of the cost for her wheelchair, as well as partial reimbursement for some transportation costs to get her to and from her home in Dearborn.
Her job involves recruiting and interviewing participants in research projects, data entry, data analysis, transcript reading, and coding.
Besides those accomplishments, Parten also once went downhill skiing at Mt. Brighton with the help of a special skiing chair.  "It was really scary, but really fun," she says of the experience.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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