National Center for Youth Law

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Kids’ mental health lawsuit filed against Washington State


SEATTLE — Children and youth filed a civil rights, class-action lawsuit against the State of Washington Nov. 24, for failure to provide intensive, community-based, mental health services.

The 10 plaintiffs, all under age 21, say that children and youth with serious mental illness are not being provided adequate care in Washington State. They are being cycled in and out of institutions and psychiatric hospitals and jails. They are homeless or end up in foster care and have families in crisis. They are dropping out of school. They are at greater risk for suicide or exacerbation of mental health issues. There is potential for these kids; but the system is failing them.

“These are kids who could be successful, if we do the right thing,” said Susan Foster of Perkins Coie, LLP, co-counsel for the plaintiffs.

The 10 plaintiffs, diagnosed with significant mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression, allege inability to access needed services from the State’s mental health system. They claim children and youth across the State suffer significant harm from repeated hospitalizations, incarcerations, separation from family, and social isolation.

The class action brought against the Department of Social and Health Services’ (DSHS) Secretary, Susan Dreyfus, was prepared by Disability Rights Washington, Perkins Coie, LLP, the National Center for Youth Law, and the National Health Law Program.

The suit says DSHS has known for years that its mental health system has significant gaps that result in high demand for long-term psychiatric facility and hospital placement. The complaint states DSHS is obligated under federal law to arrange services needed to improve mental illness for Medicaid-eligible children and youth. The complaint further states Congress established this obligation, so youth could acquire appropriate services before reaching adulthood, to preclude worsening or chronic mental health conditions in later life.

Children and youth require treatments that are more intensive and flexible than the typical weekly office-based therapy and medications, the suit says, and they should be able to access services like one-to-one in-home behavioral aides, therapeutic mentors, and mobile crisis services. These services would help prevent school failures, family instability, psychiatric harm, avoidable hospitalization, institutionalization, suicide attempts, risk of foster care placement and juvenile detention these youth and children have experienced.

“For a long time we have needed to retool the children’s mental health system, to make home and community services the cornerstone of care.  The plaintiff children cannot wait for a different economic forecast, they need this help now,” said Regan Bailey of Disability Rights Washington, co-counsel for the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs claim that DSHS’s actions violate their rights under the Medicaid Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fourteenth Amendment. They are also seeking an injunction requiring DSHS to provide them with the intensive mental health services they need in order for their conditions to improve.

For more information contact:

Tracy Schroth, NCYL, 510-835-8098, x3013
Regan Bailey, Susan Kas, DRW, 206-359-8846