HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Every time Hattiesburg couple Bill and Peggy Langnecker go to visit their son Kirk at Ellisville State School, it is the same.
"We always have to stop by and get him mashed potatoes and gravy first," said Bill. "We take him out we go up to that little park, we feed him, and he likes to go for a little ride afterwards so we take a little ride and that sort of thing and then we bring him back and we stay with him for awhile and when he's ready to go he just goes back in and goes to his room and that's the end of it - and that's the way it is every time.
They visit a couple of times each month. And Kirk is autistic, so he depends on a routine and it is the same drill every time. But Bill and Peggy do not know how long this will last.
Community pillar and gargantuan Pine Belt employer, Ellisville State School, will be shrinking- that is a fact. As a result, hundreds of families are left hanging in the balance when they hear that it will be getting smaller but to still have so many unknowns: will loved ones be discharged, who will decide, where will they go, when will they know?
The United States Department of Justice is mandating that institutions across the state shrink down as they discharge patients that federal law states, do not need to be inside. And that those patients be channeled to smaller facilities that in the community, rather than on an institution's campus. And that has been it – families have been given no more details.
"It is so quiet, you know it's just like they have come in and nobody - the population - there's hundreds and hundreds of parents out there that this is affecting them, and they don't know anything about it," said Peggy.
There is a fear that the undiscerning hand of a federal mandate is reaching into families and reorganizing. But school Director Renee Brett said that is not the case.
"We can't just discharge people from Ellisville State School without knowing that they have an appropriate place to be cared for."
It will go person by person, with staff evaluating everyone; not a faceless process where patients are looked at as numbers on a spreadsheet.
Brett says that no will be blind sided and staff will prepare families for a relocation. Patients will be referred to homes not far away and will not be sent home, to families who are not capable or comfortable taking care of loved ones who require 24 care and, in many cases, careful treatment.
"Most of our population are people who are not able to provide for their own needs and care for themselves, they do have to have some type of support," said Brett.
But when asked if some patients will inevitably be discharged against a family's wishes, she could not say it would never happen. And that is the fear.
Bill Langnecker is president of the school's Family and Friends program and Peggy said the phone has been ringing constantly with families who are concerned.
The Langnecker's say their son Kirk may be better off in a place geared towards autistic people, but there is not a place like that nearby. And if he moved far, they could see him a couple of times a year.
"He knows who we are and he grabs hold of us and just hangs on, but he's gotten so that he can let go," said Peggy.