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Spokane County and 21 other WA counties sue the state for lack of mental health care

Spokesman-Review - 8/23/2023

Aug. 23—Spokane County and 21 other counties across Washington are suing the state Department of Social and Health Services, saying the agency planned to release patients from facilities without proper support and mistreated people convicted of crimes.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit announced Wednesday include Lincoln Asotin and King counties, and the Washington State Association of Counties.

Filed in Pierce County Superior Court, the 19-page legal complaint surrounds the treatment of what are called "civil conversion" patients, or those who came to the hospital from jail and did not regain legal competency. The lawsuit contends that DSHS hospitals have not been providing the legally mandated civil commitment evaluations for patients and have "selectively refused admission to civil conversion patients since at least December 2022."

Under state law, DSHS is required to notify certain people — such as law enforcement, prosecutors and victims — at least 30 days before releasing a civil conversion patient back into the community. The 22 states claim DSHS did not follow this directive.

"DSHS is depriving a particularly at-risk population of the opportunity for necessary mental health treatment," the complaint reads, "to the detriment of both patient well-being and community safety."

From September 2022 to March 2023, the plaintiffs say DSHS removed beds and closed wards at Western State Hospital, "long before replacement bed space was available," resulting in an inability for the state agency to care for patients as it is required to under the law.

Under state law, when a judge rules that a person charged with a crime is too mentally ill to stand trial, the state has 14 days to evaluate the person. If doctors deem the person's competency can be restored, the state has seven days following the competency evaluation to make sure the person understands the charge or charges they face. These guidelines for the timely mental health treatment of people in jails were outlined in the case Trueblood et al v. Washington State DSHS.

Gov. Jay Inslee's office on Wednesday stated a federal court order preventing DSHS from admitting civil conversion patients into state hospitals has "substantially" impaired the state's ability to treat and care for the patients.

"The counties bring this action as if no such court order exists," reads an email from Inslee's spokesperson, Mike Faulk.

Falk wrote the governor's legal counsel was still reviewing the lawsuit against the state.

"These are challenging issues," he wrote. "but we reject any notion that the state is not committed to meeting its obligations under the Trueblood order."

A DSHS spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ellen Dennis' work is funded in part by members of the Spokane community via the Community Journalism and Civic Engagement Fund. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.


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