'Boarding' mentally ill remains legal for now, judge rules

Staff writerDecember 10, 2013 

Parking people with mental illness in emergency rooms without required treatment remains legal in the state of Washington – for now.

Tuesday, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Kathryn Nelson granted a second six-month stay of a ruling she issued in June of this year. Nelson upheld an earlier ruling that the practice of “psychiatric boarding” violates state and federal law by denying people with mental illness the treatment they are supposed to receive.

“We don’t detain people and restrain their liberty without providing care and treatment,” Nelson said in June. “We don’t house them in one room, whether the jailer is the Pierce County Jail or whether the jailer is the hospital.”

Nelson reluctantly granted the initial stay last summer, giving attorneys time to file arguments with the state Court of Appeals. Those arguments are underway, but they won’t be complete until next year, long after Tuesday’s original deadline set by Nelson.

The second extension moves the deadline to July 1, 2014. Tuesday’s decision was no surprise – it took place in a matter of minutes, with attorneys for all sides agreeing to the order while the argument plays out in the higher court.

The News Tribune broke the news of the initial boarding decision in March, and followed up with additional exclusive coverage in July. Psychiatric boarding has ballooned across the state in recent years, fueled by a series of deep cuts to the state mental-health system and a dearth of available psychiatric beds. On a per-capita basis, the state ranks last in the nation for available community psychiatric beds.

The boarding procedure allows the state and counties to park people awaiting civil commitment for mental illness in hospital emergency rooms. Those patients frequently wait for weeks or months in hospital beds without treatment, due to the statewide bed shortage. Patients with severe illness require constant supervision. Some are held in restraints.

If Nelson’s ruling takes effect, the effect on the state mental-health system could be seismic. State attorneys argue that banning boarding would force people with mental illness to the streets with no care at all. Defense attorneys who oppose the practice say parking people in hospital beds without mental-health treatment is warehousing in disguise – depriving patients of their civil rights and liberty.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486
sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

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