Unmarked graves at Eastern State Hospital should not be marked, AG says

Wednesday, September 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- The unmarked graves of more than 1,100 patients who died at a mental hospital in Vinita cannot be marked without a court order or the consent of the patient or a relative, according to an opinion issued Tuesday by the state attorney general's office.

Attorney General Drew Edmondson and Assistant Attorney General John Crittenden said state mental health officials are generally not authorized to make public the identities of patients buried at the cemetery at Eastern State Hospital.

Interim Mental Health Commissioner David V. Statton sought the opinion after the 1999 Legislature passed a resolution stating that state prison inmates should mark graves at the cemetery and maintain it.

But the resolution was not submitted to the governor for approval and could not become law, according to the opinion.

The opinion noted that Oklahoma's mental health law states that medical records and communication between physicians or psychotherapists are privileged and confidential. Federal regulations also restrict the disclosure of patient information, the opinion said.

Rep. Wallace Collins, D-Norman, was the House author of the 1999 resolution and said he was disappointed by the opinion. He said the mental health department has the records containing the identities of those in the cemetery, which he said might be lost as the hospital continues to downsize to just 44 beds by the end of the year.

"Why shouldn't we do the Christian thing and mark the graves of those people whose only crime is being mentally ill?" Collins said.

He said not marking the graves furthers the stigma of mental illness.

The Eastern State cemetery has 1,548 graves -- 1,172 of which are unmarked, said Mental health department spokeswoman Rosemary Brown.

She said not all family members or descendents of those who died at Eastern State might want public disclosure.