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Sago counseling money unused

The Manchin administration has yet to start spending a federal grant approved five months ago meant to help provide counseling to residents struggling with the lingering trauma of the Sago Mine disaster.

Federal officials approved the $35,000 grant in April, but the state has not released the funding to the Appalachian Community Mental Health Center in Elkins.

“We’re not sure where it is,” said Richard Kiley, a licensed psychologist and director of the Elkins center.

Lara Ramsburg, communications director for Gov. Joe Manchin, said the governor has ordered an investigation to find out what went wrong.

“We don’t tolerate things like this,” Ramsburg said. “Obviously, there was a problem somewhere. We need to find out where, and hold people accountable.”

In the last three weeks, two miners who worked at Sago — and were key figures in investigation of the Jan. 2 disaster — killed themselves, police have confirmed.

The deaths of mine dispatcher William Chisolm, 47, of Belington, and fireboss John Nelson Boni, 63, of Volga, have other Sago families and mine safety advocates concerned about the ongoing emotional toll from the tragedy.

Twelve miners died as a result of the early morning explosion inside the Sago Mine, ranking the event as the worst mining disaster in West Virginia since 78 miners died in the Farmington explosion in 1968.

Ramsburg noted that Manchin, who lost an uncle at Farmington, has promised to put all of the state’s resources into helping the Sago families.

Through the state Department of Health and Human Resources, Kiley’s center had applied for federal aid for mental health outreach and educational work for area residents affected by the disaster.

The federal Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, provides such grants “in rare emergency situations in which state and local resources are overwhelmed and no other federal resources are available,” the agency says on its Web site.

These grants are called State Emergency Response Grants, or SERG grants. To qualify, states must “demonstrate that the need is greater than existing local and state resources, and must explain why other federal funding doesn’t meet their needs,” the agency says.

Last year, the federal government approved $600,000 in such grants to Louisiana, Alabama, Texas and Mississippi to provide mental health assessment and crisis counseling to areas hit by Hurricane Katrina.

At the Sago Mine, Kiley’s center was involved before the rescue effort was over, sending a team of 10 mental health professionals to the Sago Baptist Church and the mine site on Jan. 3 to help miners’ families and emergency responders, according to the state’s grant application.

The 25-page application, submitted in February, explained that further mental health services were necessary for the community to survive the disaster.

“Without continued outreach support, the social fabric of the communities ... will completely deteriorate and the psychological ramifications will be felt for generations to come,” the application stated.

The application continued, “The mental health needs that have been identified during this immediate response phase include: anger, shock, disbelief, distrust, a greater sense of both mortality and despair, apathy, victimization by the media frenzy, loss of intergenerational ties, [and] a sense of loss of the formally tight-knit community.”

The state sought $182,000 in grant money, but was awarded only $35,000, records show.

John Law, a spokesman for DHHR Secretary Martha Walker, said the grant problem did not mean area residents went without mental health services.

“I’m not trying to diminish the nature of what we did here, but there were other mental health services available. This was simply an extension of those.”

Law also said the center was not going to be doing a “large-scale” outreach project with just $35,000 in federal money.

On Tuesday, Kiley said his center and other facilities are continuing to provide counseling and other services to those affected by the Sago disaster.

But Kiley said the idea behind the grant was to do outreach and education to help residents understand their emotional reactions, recognize serious problems and seek professional help if needed.

Residents need to understand, Kiley said, that various emotional reactions from guilt to anger are “normal reactions to an abnormal situation.

“Our goal would be to help people cope,” Kiley said. “It’s partly to let people know how they might react, and also to let them know what to expect and where to go if they need help.”

Janet Hite, a SAMHSA spokeswoman, said that funding for the one-year, $35,000-project was approved in April. Hite was not immediately aware of any problems that would have prevented the state from spending the money.

“We sent the money out,” Hite said. “That was done.”

John Bianconi, commissioner of DHHR’s Bureau for Behavioral Health Services and Health Facilities, said he could not immediately explain why the money was not yet disbursed.

“There have been some technical difficulties from what I understand about some budgetary issues, and dealing with the federal government on this,” Bianconi said. “We’ve had a little bit of a slow response on this, and there has been some miscommunication.

“The grant is not the issue,” Bianconi said. “It is some budgetary issues.

“There are ways you can spend the money, and ways you can’t,” he said. “We were trying to get them cleared up so that it didn’t get audited.”

Ramsburg said DHHR officials told the Appalachian Community Mental Health Center to go ahead with the project and the agency would reimburse them later. The local agency did not want to begin until it received the grant money, she said.

Ramsburg said the grant disbursement may have been delayed while officials reworked the project when the federal government approved just one-fifth of the money originally requested.

Now, Ramsburg said, the state is waiting on federal officials to review the updated project plans.

Still, she said, while the grant was originally approved in April, state officials did not submit the reworked plan to the federal government until August.

“It’s inexcusable for it to have taken that long, and we want to find out what happened,” Ramsburg said. “[Manchin] is adamant that we will find out what went wrong. That’s not how he expects us to do business.”

Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continued coverage of the Sago Mine disaster is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

To contact Ward, use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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