State looks to add millions for troubled kids after settlement

Staff writerOctober 10, 2013 

New mental-health services for children required under a recent legal settlement will eventually cost the state an estimated $32 million every year.

Officials told state lawmakers Thursday they will need just more than $8 million to start implementing the settlement, which puts to rest a class-action lawsuit on behalf of youth up to age 21 that lawyers argued were being unnecessarily institutionalized.

The money will be spent trying to keep those youth in their homes as they receive treatment under Medicaid for mental and emotional disorders.

“Really, the goal of this case and the settlement agreement is for kids to be able to stay at home, or a home that feels like their home,” said Susan Kas, a staff attorney with a group that helped bring the lawsuit, Disability Rights Washington.

Today, young people with serious needs sometimes end up in a group home or a long-term inpatient treatment setting such as the Pearl Street Center in Tacoma or the Child Study and Treatment Center in Lakewood.

Others bounce from one foster home to the next, or stay at home but languish without the proper help – and might commit crimes that send them to juvenile detention, said Jane Beyer, an assistant secretary at the Department of Social and Health Services.

“The whole idea behind that settlement,” Beyer said “is to incrementally over the course of five years build a system ... which at full capacity in 2018 would hopefully be able to serve up to about 6,000 (children) a year, if the Legislature funds it.”

The state would begin by offering the program to about 250 children, she said.

Once identified by a school, a court, a health-care provider or anyone else, a child would undergo a screening and then be placed into the new program of intensive treatment. A database would help track the child’s progress.

Once fully built, the program would cost state government $32 million a year, and pull down nearly the same amount in federal money.

It’s a relatively small price tag, said House budget chairman Ross Hunter, who is questioning whether the program could be more expensive than the state estimates. The Medina Democrat said money spent on children’s treatment has a big impact.

“We’ve cut the hell out of this stuff in the last four years,” he said.

The new program is the biggest boost in mental-health funding, but not the only one, that DSHS wants Gov. Jay Inslee to seek from lawmakers in 2014 – a year after lawmakers provided some money to make it easier to keep dangerous patients committed and curb violence at state hospitals.

The department wants $4 million to try using the King County jail as a place to treat criminal defendants’ mental illness to the point that they can stand trial for their crimes. Right now that treatment is done at Western State Hospital, which has a waiting list that officials hope to scale back or eliminate.

The agency also wants $2 million to buy hundreds of safer beds, tables and chairs for the hospitals. The plastic furniture, difficult to lift and with no legs, would be harder to use as weapons, Beyer said.

Lawmakers return to Olympia in January to consider updates to the budget – and for the first time since the financial crisis, they may not have a deficit staring back at them.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826

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