CHICAGO (CN) – Illinois forces hundreds of children to remain locked up in psychiatric wards after they’ve been medically cleared for release, according to a federal class action, causing them immense mental harm and costing taxpayers millions of dollars.
On Thursday, the court-appointed guardian ad litem of 15 children who are subjects of abuse and neglect petitions filed a class action against the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, abbreviated as DCFS, in Chicago federal court.
The lawsuit accuses the state agency of keeping vulnerable children locked up in psychiatric wards long after they have been medically cleared for discharge instead of sending them to an appropriate facility.
The state’s practice of holding children in a mental hospital longer than medically necessary is “inhumane,” according to the complaint.
“Being unnecessarily locked in a psychiatric hospital undermines – even eliminates – the precious stability that children formed during their admission. Children in psychiatric hospitals receive no formal schooling. They are locked indoors every day. Their ability to visit with siblings and family members is drastically curtailed. And psychiatric facilities can be dangerous,particularly for vulnerable children, when other patients express psychiatric and behavior disorders,” the lawsuit states.
One child represented by the guardian ad litem, identified as Alana M., was hospitalized for depression at age 13 after her adoptive mother died. It was intended for her to go live with her older sister after she was discharged, but the placement wasn’t approved for four and a half months, according to the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, she remained locked up, unable to regularly go outside or communicate with her family members. By the time the agency approved her discharge, Alana’s mental health had allegedly deteriorated to the point where she required placement in a residential facility, and could not be released to her family.
“There are few clearer ways to tell a child that he or she does not matter than by locking him or her in a psychiatric ward when there is no justification for doing so,” the complaint says.
The state’s own statistics show that nearly 30 percent of children in its care who were hospitalized – about 800 children, some as young as 5 years old – were held longer than necessary in psychiatric facilities. Of these, 40 percent were held longer than a month, and 15 percent were confined for two months or longer.
In addition, the complaint says, “Warehousing children BMN [beyond medically necessary] in psychiatric wards is the most expensive therapeutic housing situation possible.”
Every day a child spends in a psychiatric hospital allegedly costs the state $350 a day, a minimum of $126 a day more than the next expensive treatment option. At this rate, Illinois unnecessarily spent at least $3.4 million from 2015 to 2017 to keep children locked in mental hospitals, without even considering the psychological damage caused by such a severely restrictive placement, the lawsuit states.
The number of children being held in these conditions has risen every year for the past four years, according to the complaint.
“DCFS pretends it is saving taxpayer dollars by cutting funding for residential and group home care – placements that are desperately needed by children being held BMN. But the reality is that detaining children BMN is extraordinarily expensive, leaving Illinois taxpayers to spend millions of dollars on an unconstitutional practice,” the lawsuit asserts.
The children’s guardian, Charles Golbert, is represented by Russel Ainsworth with Loevy & Loevy.
DCFS declined to comment on the lawsuit’s specific allegations, but issued a statement saying, “‘Beyond medical necessity’ is an insurance term and means that Medicaid will no longer pay for psychiatric hospitalization. Most people understand that denial of insurance coverage and medical need are two different things. A cutoff of Medicaid coverage for psychiatric hospitalization is not the same as a treating physician’s decision about readiness for discharge.”
The statement notes that finding placements for at-risk youth is a very serious challenge.
“Many of the youths’ behaviors, including fire-setting and self-harm, lead to rejections of admission by private residential providers and foster parents concerned about risk from these youth even after discharge from psychiatric hospitals,” the state agency said.
DCFS says it spent an additional $20 million on “new service capacity” this year to reduce the need for psychiatric hospitalization.
“Rebuilding the capacity of the mental health system will require more than a lawsuit,” the agency said.