SAN DIEGO (CN) — Despite a hospital's reputation as one the best in the nation, the mother of a transgender teenager says her son experienced discrimination by hospital staff while he was on a 72-hour suicide watch.
Katharine Prescott says several staff members at the Rady Children's Hospital's Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Services unit "misgendered" her 14-year-old transgender son Kyler after admitting him on April 5, 2015, referring to Kyler as "she" rather than "he." The teen was admitted after engaging in "self-harming behavior" related to bullying.
The misstep by hospital staff caused Kyler so much anxiety that his therapist and the unit's staff psychiatrist decided it was best for the teen to be removed from the in-patient unit and discharged two days early.
Kyler died by suicide more than a month later, in May 2015. His mother does not blame the hospital for his death, but says he should not have received such discriminatory care from a hospital touted as one of the top children's hospitals in the nation and the largest in California.
Prescott appeared on Caitlyn Jenner's television show "I Am Cait" to talk about her son and his suicide.
In her lawsuit, Prescott claims the hospital violated the Affordable Care Act, California's Civil Rights Act and California Business & Professions Code by discriminating against her son based on his gender. She seeks damages and injunctive relief to make Rady's "provide appropriate, nondiscriminatory care to all of its patients, regardless of sex, gender identity and/or disability."
Prescott says Rady's violated the section of the federal Affordable Care Act which prohibits gender discrimination, including based on gender identity, since it receives federal funding.
Rady's received $5 million in federal funding in 2015 and $2.2 million in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The hospital provides care to 90 percent of children in the San Diego region, according to its website.
Not only did Rady's receive federal funding and violate federal law when it discriminated against her son, but the hospital "advertised its expertise" in treating transgender and gender nonconforming children and adolescents through its Gender Management Clinic, Prescott says in her lawsuit. Kyler had received care from one of Rady's endocrinologists, who approved Kyler to take puberty-delaying medication.
According to the Sept. 26 complaint, Kyler had gender dysphoria - the psychological distress many transgender people experience due to the "incongruity" of their anatomy and gender identity. He came out to Prescott and other family members at 13 and legally changed his name and gender.
Kyler was admitted to the children's hospital as a male patient and his medical bracelet was marked with an "M," yet several hospital staff members refused to recognize him as a teenage boy, Prescott says.
The teen had a history of problems related to gender dysphoria, even dropping out of a charter school in favor of independent study because teachers and students at school continuously "misgendered" him, causing "such distress that he was unable to function at school," according to the complaint.
When Kyler was admitted to Rady's, Prescott informed the staff at the psychiatry unit they needed to use the correct masculine pronouns when referring to Kyler. But several nurses referred to the teen as a girl, with one nurse telling Kyler, "Honey, I would call you 'he,' but you're such a pretty girl," according to Prescott's complaint.
Prescott called the hospital multiple times after Kyler complained several times about how hospital staff treated him. Eventually, the hospital blocked Prescott's phone number and she was unable to get in touch with the psychiatry unit or receive updates on her son. Kyler's therapist confirmed with the hospital it had blocked her phone number, according to the complaint.
The teen was subsequently discharged early, despite requiring additional mental health care.
Amy Whelan, senior attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, is one of the attorneys representing the Prescott family. She said it's a "big deal" that Kyler was removed from an inpatient care unit while experiencing a mental health crisis stemming from self-harming behavior.
"Releasing someone who needs in-patient care is really dangerous. The discrimination he was experiencing was making his health worse, not better," Whelan said.
She said many transgender teens experience gender dysphoria and will need some kind of mental health care when coming to terms with who they are.
"You hope these kids are never going to need in-patient care, but it's obvious they are going to need that care at some point," Whelan said.
She also said some would also find Prescott's claims against Rady's particularly egregious given that California's laws against discrimination are some of the strictest in the nation.
The hospital also "held itself out" to be equipped to care for transgender children, Whelan said, and if staff in the psychiatry unit had questions on how to properly care for Kyler they should have contacted his physicians in the hospital's Gender Management Clinic.
Rady's said its "top priority is providing the absolute highest level of care to our patients and families" in an emailed statement.
"While it is the policy of Rady Children's not to comment on pending legal matters, any allegations of wrongdoing, including discrimination, are investigated thoroughly and followed up on," the hospital said.
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