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December 20, 2017In The News

Lawsuit alleges inadequate treatment for mentally ill children in state care

by KATE GIAMMARISE, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A disability rights organization has filed a lawsuit alleging Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services is failing to provide adequate child welfare services to children with mental health disabilities.

The litigation, brought by Disability Rights Pennsylvania, concerns the treatment of children who are found to be “dependent” — those who can’t safely live at home due to abuse or neglect. Their care falls to the state’s Office of Children, Youth and Families and county child welfare programs, which are responsible for making sure the youths have a place to live and planning for “a permanent family connection for the child either through family reunification, foster care or adoption.”

The lawsuit alleges such children who have mental health disabilities are not treated equally to those without such disabilities, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Many end up segregated in large, congregate facilities — modern day orphanages — for years, and beyond the point that such placements are needed or beneficial,” the lawsuit alleges. Others end up in juvenile detention facilities or psychiatric hospitals for months or longer, not because they need to be there, but because they are awaiting a proper placement from DHS, according to the suit.

One of the plaintiffs is a 10-year-old boy from Beaver County, identified only by his initials, S.R. He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, mood disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and mild intellectual disability. He was removed from his home when he was 5 years old due to abuse, according to the lawsuit. Following various foster home and hospitalization programs, he was placed in a residential treatment facility and three-and-a-half years later is still there.

The residential treatment facility feels he “has benefited all he can from their program” and its placement goal for him is adoption. But with nowhere for him to go, that agency is looking to transfer him, possibly to an out-of-state facility, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit describes a “vicious cycle” in which children may bounce between numerous foster homes, exacerbating behavioral problems, then are left in residential treatment facilities beyond the amount of time that services are needed because there is no place else for them to go. Further, other children who need to get into treatment facilities can’t.

The lawsuit was filed earlier this week in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

It names the state’s Department of Human Services and acting secretary Teresa Miller as defendants. State officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The state has also faced litigation over its shortage of mental health placement slots for adults — leading to lengthy waits for treatment. A 2015 lawsuit brought by the ACLU against the Department of Human Services resulted in two settlements and additional beds for people with mental illness facing criminal charges.

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