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At last, groundbreaking for mental health facility

After numerous court hearings held before Chief Justice Michael Kruse on the status of a mental health facility in the territory, the American Samoa Government finally held a ground breaking yesterday.

The Behavioral Health Center is to be constructed between the Tafuna Correctional Facility and the Juvenile Detention Center in Tafuna.

In his opening remarks, Gov. Togiola Tulafono thanked Chief Justice Michael Kruse for his perseverance, “because if the Chief Justice had not threatened the Department of Health, Department of Public Works, Department of Human and Social Services, and the LBJ hospital— they would have not sought my assistance in trying to get the funding to build this facility” he said.

He added that this project is long overdue.

“As I was made familiar... with what has been going on in our community... I’d say this is at least two years behind” he said.

The governor said he has learned that many people in our community need the help, and yet we have not, as a community, nor as a government addressed this problem.

“Some of these challenges in families have resulted in the loss of life, because we have become complacent in our ways; and our tolerance in the culture is that we embrace all our brothers and sisters and members of our families no matter what their challenges, as regular members of our families.

“We have accepted the old tradition of taking care of our own without really raising a hand until those family members started hurting other family members, and it started appearing in the court... so the Chief Justice put up the challenge to the government — asking “What are you doing about it?”  

“As it turned out, not very much”, said Togiola.

He added that when LBJ Hospital and Department of Health were separated, it made the challenge more profound because the government was not sure who really had the mandate to take care of this issue.

The governor went on to say that the hospital had small units to treat mental health patients, however there were many more people who needed help.

He said it’s time for the government to accept the challenge and step up to the plate and do what is right for all the citizens.  

 “We cannot ignore the minority in our midst that need help and today, we are offering that help”, said the governor.

He added, “It’s easy enough to build the facility but how we are going to operate— how we are going to make it work—is going to be the bigger challenge of the future, so this by no means is the end of this project—it is just a small beginning”.

On behalf of the government and the people of American Samoa, Togiola thanked the Department of Interior for making it possible for the government to rearrange the Capital Improvements Projects funding so this could be started.

He acknowledged Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Areas Anthony M. Babauta for always working with ASG to make it possible to meet the needs of the community with limited resources. “Without your grace and your understanding none of this could be possible” he told Babauta.

Babauta, in his keynote address, said he took up his job to serve the community and that’s what it is all about — public service.

He added that it’s difficult to bring attention to these areas, especially with the tight federal budget climate. However American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico US Virgin Islands have all been affiliated with the United States for some time now.

“Year after year and decade after decade you have elected your governor, and have elected your congressman, and there is always a story to remind the leaders and those lawmakers in Congress that outside of Alaska, outside of Hawai’i, is you (American Samoa) and we had to give attention to that; and the reason for this is because we (American Samoa) are all part of the family... we are part of the United States.”

Babauta said with the groundbreaking there will be challenges ahead and he hopes that it will be challenges that can be overcome.

“This is certainly a milestone — and the true fruit of our efforts is when we come back and we’re opening the doors and we’re seeing the staff and we’re seeing the rooms, and there will be help for our underserved.”

He added that his first 24hrs within the territory was immediately after the tsunami of September 2009, and leaving after just a few days, he knew there was pain in the community. He said that reliving the scene, whether it was a nightmare or memories, he knew there was need for additional healing.

“The pain which was inflicted upon people was apparent... it was obvious,” and noted that this health center will not only address those issues (from the tsunami) but it will allow other healing to take place.

He thanked the government officials for working on the project and Togiola for his efforts in recognizing the underserved people that need a place to heal. He referred to the new facility as “a place where there is love, kindness and …compassion.”

Babauta also conveyed his thanks to the Chief Justice for making sure there was a facility for the underserved. He said “sometimes it takes the court to make it happen”. He told the crowd that it will make him even happier when they come back to cut ribbons to open the doors.

Blessing of the groundbreaking was conducted by President Vailu’u Pitoitua with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Pago West Stake. Attending were ASG officials and Director of the Office of Insular Affairs, Nikolao Pula.  

In a hearing held in court in February this year, government officials told the Chief Justice that a groundbreaking for the mental health facility was set for sometime in May. At that hearing, Kruse warned the ASG representatives that he would hold someone in contempt if they “didn’t walk the talk”.