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Landmark Agreement To Improve Mental Health For Kids In Wash.

Austin Jenkins


OLYMPIA, Wash. – Last fall we brought you a series of stories on failures in how the Northwest treats mentally ill youth. Now, a landmark legal agreement announced Wednesday aims to bring about better treatment options for nearly 20,000 Washington kids. These are children who suffer from depression, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

Tina, we’re just going to use her first name, is playing a pick-up game of Horse with her attorney.

They’re on an outdoor basketball court at the Child Study and Treatment Center. It’s a state psychiatric hospital for children near Tacoma.

Tina –- who’s 17 -- has been a patient here since last May. She’s also one of ten Washington youth with mental health needs who sued the state more than two years ago.

Tina’s life story is typical of the plaintiffs. A revolving door: in and out of jails, hospitals and foster homes.

“Like when I was a little kid I was always in the back of a police car being taken off to ‘juvie’," she says. "I’ve probably been hospitalized 12 or 13 times. Foster homes, I’ve been in many. The last time I was in foster care I went to a respite home and I took a car and ran it into a semi.”

Tina was finally sent to this psychiatric hospital after the cops had to wrestle her off an overpass to keep her from jumping. Attorneys for Tina and her fellow plaintiffs say some of this heartache could have been avoided if Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services had done what Medicaid requires: provide intensive in-home and community-based treatments.

Tina’s now stable and scheduled to move back home with her dad later this month. But she knows there are, “Many kids out there that have these issues and I don’t think it’s right for a whole bunch of other kids to have to go through the same thing I did.”

That’s the point of a new formal agreement between the state of Washington and attorneys for mentally ill children.

“I think that kids and families are going to see incremental improvements, it’s not going to happen overnight,” says Rick Weaver who is with Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services. He says the state has agreed to spend the next 15 months building the foundation for a new way of delivering mental health services to children in Washington.

But what exactly does that mean? Weaver says the current system often fails on two fronts. First, the care of a child isn’t coordinated. He calls it “catch-as-catch-can.”

He says, “Case workers will talk to individual case workers one-by-one and getting everyone in the room might not happen.”

Weaver says that’s got to change. The other change?

“Families directing the care of their children. Understanding what they see as being important and letting them guide that process.”

Weaver says this transformation is already underway in Washington. But now there’s a 15 month legal deadline to spur things along.

Regan Bailey is an attorney with Disability Rights Washington. It’s one of the advocacy groups that sued on behalf of the ten plaintiffs.

“This is not a settlement agreement," Bailey says. "This is just a pause in active litigation until next June.”

Even so, Bailey says this agreement is an important first step toward eventually putting a stop to the revolving door Tina and the other plaintiffs experienced.

Ultimately, the goal is to see Washington move away from traditional office-based therapy and medications to in-home services. Bailey says those would include mobile crisis teams to respond day or night if a youth is out of control.

“Well, I think the hope is the state has shown a great deal of commitment in making these structural changes that are essential to providing those services in the future. That commitment is not a small thing and it’s something to build on.”

Back at the Child Study and Treatment Center, Tina she says more than anything, she hopes this lawsuit helps others kids like her

“I know there’s many kids out there that have these issues and I don’t think it’s right for a whole bunch of other kids to have to go through the same thing I did,” she says.

Even though just ten kids were named in the original lawsuit, it’s now a class-action. That means the agreement covers some 20,000 Medicaid-eligible kids in Washington who have serious mental health needs.

There is something in the agreement for Tina and the other original plaintiffs. The state has agreed to reassess them and provide any medically-necessary services they’re not currently getting.

This could help Tina as she transitions home after her release from the Child Study and Treatment Center.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network