Harris Lobbies for Children’s Justice

February 14-20, 2003

By Tom Berry

Axel Rose helped persuade Dr. Patrice Harris to become a psychiatrist. Or, more accurately, someone who thought he was the lead singer for Guns N’ Roses. And the man didn’t even know he did it.

Harris had intended to become a pediatrician when she entered a psychiatry clerkship in her third year in medical school at West Virginia University.

”One of my patients suffered from delusion, a very serious form of mental illness,” she said. “Not to make light of it, but he thought he was Axel Rose. I became fascinated with how the human brain works, how this blob of tissue can make somebody believe that he’s somebody else. I simply fell in love with psychiatry.”

That fascination plays out in many forms today for the child, adolescent, adult and forensic psychiatrist. Besides having a private practice, Harris is senior policy fellow for the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at Emory University School of Law, a position funded by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.

Harris also is president-elect of the Black Psychiatrists of America, an at-large trustee of the American Psychiatric Association and a board member and secretary of the Georgia Psychiatric Physicians Association.

As the point person for the Barton Clinic at the state capitol, children are a special focus.

“I’ve always wanted to work with children,” she said. “Adults get into their patterns of behavior and are pretty much who they are. But if we intervene with [troubled] children as early as possible, we have an opportunity to make a real difference.”

With the Georgia General Assembly in session, much of her work these days is devoted to lobbying to reform the state’s child welfare system. In an austere budget year, Gov. Sonny Perdue has proposed spending an additional $52 million on the troubled state system over the next two-and one-half years.

Unceasing need

“Certainly, we’re very appreciative of the governor’s proposal in tight budget times, but there’s a lot more to be done,” Harris said. “The system has been underfunded for so many years that we’re still way behind the eight ball on funding.”

Even with 200 new positions allocated in the past two years, Georgia is still 388 caseworkers below national child welfare standards, she said. “I’d say that 99 percent of caseworkers are trying to do a good job, but they’re overwhelmed by cases. They don’t have the tools they need.”

Better tools would include a comprehensive, computerized tracking system to keep tabs on children in state custody, Harris said. The current system is not fully computerized.

“[Department of Human Resources] officials will tell you they know where every child is, but in this day and age, we need a good automated tracking system,” she said. “It’s something we’re really pushing for at the Barton Clinic.”

State officials are opting to tie into the federal system, but bids won’t go out until mid-2004, which is too far off, she said.

In general, Harris said, she is concerned that African-Americans are “underserved or unserved by a woefully inadequately funded public mental health system all across the country, including Georgia.”

Part of the problem is the way mental health care continues to be viewed, as sort of a poor cousin of the medical system, she said.

“A Medicare patient will go to a doctor and maybe pay a 10% co-payment. If a patient goes to a psychiatrist, it’s a 50 percent co-payment. That’s discriminatory coverage and it affects everyone, not only African Americans,” Harris said.

Beyond that, there remains “a huge stigma [in the black community] about seeing a psychiatrist,” she said. “While it’s getting better, it’s still there. We have to get people to realize that mental illnesses and brain disorders are biologically based. They’re physical impairments.”

Those who are dissatisfied with public policy have an obligation to get involved in the political process, Harris said. “I loathe people who complain but don’t do anything to change things. I like the fact that I have an opportunity with this position to make a real difference.”

Legislator face-time

Often Harris has Emory students in tow, one goal of the Barton Clinic being to encourage advocacy among the young. Students are usually astounded to discover that politicians are so accessible, she said.

Colleagues say Harris has an unusual combination of talents.

“She’s a psychiatrist who can communicate well with legislators,” said Andy Barclay, founder of the 3-year-old Barton Clinic. “She bridges the gap between science and law. Usually it’s tough to get doctors involved in the political process because it looks so messy. As the saying goes, ‘Making law is like making sausages.’ But Patrice wants to take the process on, and she’s very effective at what she does”

According to Barton Clinic data, $90 million in new state funds have flowed or are proposed to flow into state child protection activities in fiscal years 2002-2004. With federal money involved, that new-funding total rises to just less than $120 million.

“To have a child psychiatrist in the role of child advocate is a unique opportunity for legislators to get a special kind of expertise and perspective,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Atlanta, a Barton Clinic colleague who teaches at Emory Law School. “Patrice understands the legislative process, and she has a great set of public skills for working in what is a very competitive political environment.”

Several years ago, Harris caught the eyes of Lasa Joiner, government relations consultant for the Georgia Psychiatric Physicians Association. Joiner put Harris to work lobbying the legislature on GPPA causes, her first portfolio under the Gold Dome.

“Her biggest strength is her ability to communicate in a very honest and forthright manner,” Joiner said. “She’s very smart, and she can quickly distill any issue down to the most important points. Plus, Patrice has a marvelous personality for politics. She’s likable, and her credibility is very high.”

Harris grew up in Bluefield, a small city in West Virginia, the daughter of a railroad worker and junior high math teacher.

TV’s Marcus Welby had a strong influence on the young Harris.

“He was a role model,” she said. “I’m disappointed that I can’t practice medicine like Marcus Welby did. I have to worry about Medicaid reimbursement and all those other things that he didn’t have to worry about.”

Harris graduated from West Virginia University in 1982 with a degree in psychology and went on to earn a master’s degree in counseling psychology. She came to Atlanta in 1992 to start her residency in general psychiatry at Emory University.

After getting her master’s degree at West Virginia University, Harris briefly served as the University’s coordinator of minority student affairs. “I didn’t like university politics,” she said. So, she went to medical school, a dream since childhood.

Now, with her work at the Capitol, she’s at the epicenter of politics in Georgia, a thick tangle of interests and cross-interests.

“I guess I couldn’t get away from politics,” she said, chuckling.


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ArticleRyan Vanderbilt