As a variety of organizations join in an audit of the Timpanogos Mental Health Center in Utah County, state lawmakers, local government officials, and John Q. Public are avidly playing a game called "Something Must Be Done."
There is concern across the board in Utah that an abuse of state, federal, and private money can occur again, particularly in another program that has multiple overseers.In the words of a legislative auditor, "When several groups are responsible for oversight, the process sometimes gets overlooked. Everyone thinks someone else is doing it."
I agree that something ought to be done, but I am more than a little concerned about what form that "something" will take.
A recent audit of the mental health center revealed more than $3.5 million in misappropriated funds and faulty business practices.
That audit, conducted by the Legislative Auditor General's office, was, admittedly, the tip of the iceberg. It was a two-week study that revealed serious problems, without claiming to reveal the whole extent of those problems.
Since information began surfacing, some have been scrambling for cover, while others have made a serious effort to decide where blame can be placed.
While officials try to figure out what happened and why, legislators, who set up the county mental authority system, are wondering if they ought to make changes in that system. And some legislators believe they should share in responsibility for what happened.
I am appalled by what happened at Timpanogos. But I am less concerned with faulting the system created to oversee mental health programs and others, like substance abuse and aging.
I have seen the benefits to be derived from having local authorities manage a program. Too often, state and federal management is too far away, and it's like looking through the wrong end of binoculars.
I am more concerned that, in an effort to "abuse-proof" programs like the mental health system, we will somehow throw out all the good in the system; that we will dilute the strengths when we wash away the weaknesses.
What does appall me is the damage that a few people can do when they take advantage of the system and people who trust them to do their job with honor.
I have no doubt that any system can be subverted if someone is determined to make a profit from it.
The legislators, state policy makers, and public should all remember one thing: Audits of three other county mental health centers, identical to the one at Timpanogos, revealed no malfeasance. Other audits are expected, and they most likely will be just as clean.
It's always tempting to lump groups together when there's a problem. But a policeman engaged in theft does not mean all members of the force are corrupt. When a political figure is caught in a bad situation, it shouldn't mean that all elected officials are viewed with suspicion.
And it's certainly not fair to believe that everyone working in county mental health in general and Timpanogos in particular has done something wrong.
The alleged malfeasance in Utah County has already done a lot of damage.
One legislator said he thought the mental health budget should be cut across the board, since they have money to waste. Others have said there is obviously a lot of fat in the social service budget and possibly other budgets, as well, or this could not have happened.
Norman Angus, director of the Department of Social Services, told me he's afraid this situation will hurt a lot of his programs, including aging, substance abuse and others. I hope he's wrong.
When people sit around and discuss what happened in Utah County, I fervently hope they will also remember all the good things that happened there hard-to-place kids who were, in fact, helped, for example.
And as they look at other social service programs, I hope they will see the incredible need for services many that have never been met or have been cut back.
I agree that law- and policymakers need to take a serious look at the system they have created and improve it in any way possible.
But to quote an old cliche: I hope they don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.