22 WA counties sue DSHS over refusal to provide behavioral health services

Aug 23, 2023, 7:45 PM

Photo: King County Executive Dow Constantine...

King County Executive Dow Constantine (Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

A coalition of 22 counties, including King, Pierce and Snohomish, have filed a lawsuit against the Washington Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) over the department’s decision to stop providing evaluations and treatments for people in need of behavioral health support when exiting the criminal legal system.

The Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC) filed the lawsuit in Pierce County Superior Court alongside the county coalition — which is made up of Asotin, Clallam, Cowlitz, Douglas, Grant, Grays Harbor, Island, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Klickitat, Lewis, Lincoln, Pacific, Pierce, Skagit, Skamania, Snohomish, Spokane, Thurston, Whatcom and Yakima County. The state of Washington is comprised of 39 counties.

Despite court orders and state laws requiring the department to provide behavioral health support, DSHS has stated it is no longer obligated to either evaluate or treat patients whose criminal charges are dismissed, citing a federal judge’s orders in a separate case.

“What DSHS is doing … by not even wanting to do the evaluation is essentially washing its hands of the whole problem. And then even worse, trying to transfer that on to already stressed county mental health systems,” King County spokesman Chase Gallagher said, according to KIRO Newsradio.

King County Executive Dow Constantine claimed DSHS has repeatedly argued it will not follow its legal requirements, potentially causing hundreds of individuals across the state to lose their chance for mental health treatment, especially those attempting to break the cycle of re-offense.

“For the benefit of the patient and the public, DSHS has a basic legal obligation to provide behavioral health treatment to those involved in the legal system,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said in a prepared statement. “The reality is that people in these circumstances are often failed by multiple systems that, rather than offering hope and restoration, leave them untreated and at risk of reoffending. It is the state’s responsibility in these circumstances to provide people with treatment and a chance to recover.”

More from Dow Constantine: King County to make ‘harmful cuts to essential services’

“Our behavioral health vision at King County is for everyone to access care, anywhere, at any time, even in a moment of crisis,” Constantine continued. “That’s why we are actively working to increase access to treatment through investments in behavioral health facilities, mobile crisis treatment, and the voter-approved Crisis Care Centers initiative. Every government faces limited finances and workforce shortages. Counties cannot now be asked to also shoulder the state’s long-time responsibility.”

When a person charged with a crime is suffering from serious mental health conditions or cognitive disabilities and subsequently has their charges are often dismissed due to the inability to understand said charges. DSHS is then ordered by the court to evaluate that individual and, if necessary, provide effective behavioral health treatment. This process is called civil conversion commitment.

Last month, Judge Marsha J. Pechman with the U.S. Western District of Washington issued a 52-page decision finding DSHS officials breached a settlement agreement known as “Trueblood.” That agreement established time frames for people in jail to get services at state psychiatric facilities, according to The Seattle Times. The “Trueblood” settlement outlined that defendants who were incompetent to stand trial would be evaluated within 14 days and, if needed, start receiving treatment services within seven days after that.

But DSHS has failed to meet those timelines, according to Pechman’s decision. As of April, people who qualified for treatment were waiting an average of 130 days before they could receive services at a state facility.

More on Dow Constantine: King County Executive Dow Constantine won’t run for governor

“Refusing to admit and indiscriminately releasing those with serious behavioral health issues — who were previously charged with felony crimes — without providing necessary treatment or proper notice to local authorities and crime victims is a clear dereliction of duty by DSHS,” King County Prosecutor Leesa Manion said in a prepared statement. “There is no doubt that the agency’s failure to act will impact public safety and further strain local police agencies and courts. The current failures in our state systems must be addressed; otherwise, more people may be harmed, and many vulnerable defendants will be denied the mental health services they so critically need.”

DSHS, facing a $100 million fine after failing to follow the “Trueblood” settlement, claimed that its refusal to follow state law with conversion patients is the fault of the federal court, the legal body that instituted the $100 million fine.

Washington purchased the recently shuttered Cascade Behavioral Health facility earlier this month, costing approximately $30 million, to combat the statewide shortage of psychiatric treatment options. The $30 million came out of the DSHS’ annual budget.

DSHS also took a financial hit earlier this year after a judge ruled the agency and the Washington State Attorney General’s Office were to be fined $200,000 for “egregious” withholding of evidence in an ongoing lawsuit. They also have to pay an additional $122,000 in legal fees.

More on the case: Washington AG, DSHS fined additional $122K in neglect case

They were ordered to pay the fine as a sanction for the state failing to turn over 11,000 pages of records to prosecutors in a lawsuit involving the neglect of a developmentally disabled woman at an assisted living facility in Kent.

The counties’ motion for a preliminary injunction may be heard as early as Sept. 8 in Pierce County Superior Court.

DSHS has yet to comment on the situation.

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22 WA counties sue DSHS over refusal to provide behavioral health services