Grays Harbor and Pacific County are joining 20 other counties to sue the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) over a lack of mental health services.
The Washington State Association of Counties and 22 counties within the state signed onto the lawsuit, including Grays Harbor, Pacific, Asotin, Clallam, Cowlitz, Douglas, Grant, Island, Jefferson, King, Pierce, Kitsap, Klickitat, Lewis, Lincoln, Skagit, Skamania, Snohomish, Spokane, Thurston, Whatcom, and Yakima counties.
In the lawsuit, the counties allege that the DSHS is failing to follow the state constitution and their “fundamental obligation” by refusing to provide mental health services to patients.
It states that DSHS is depriving a particularly at-risk population of mental health treatment, leading to the detriment of both patient well-being and community safety.
The counties, who represent more than 6 million Washington residents, joined together to ensure DSHS follows state guidelines as part of the criminal justice and mental health care system.
The lawsuit says that DSHS is failing to properly evaluate patients when civil commitment is needed over criminal hold, as they are obligated to do per Superior Court order.
Whenever a superior court dismisses felony criminal charges related to sex, violent, or felony harassment charges due to a defendant’s competency, the court refers the former defendant to DSHS for a mental health evaluation. During those evaluations, DSHS is tasked with determining whether additional commitment for treatment is required.
According to the lawsuit, DSHS has refused admission to patients under civil conversion since at least December 2022, with refusal for required evaluations since July 13, 2023.
In addition, it states that from at least September 2022 through March 2023, DSHS removed beds and closed wards at Western State Hospital before replacement bed space was available, and issued a memorandum that informed counties that they would not be complying with the court order and instead would “triage” patients.
The counties assert that DSHS did not provide notice of that policy change prior to implementation, nor were they consulted by the agency regarding impacts.
These actions have reportedly forced the counties to suffer injury due to DSHS’s failure to comply with the guidelines.
Washington law requires that DSHS inform law enforcement, victims, and the court when they release patients back into communities following their treatment, which the agency has allegedly stated they do not intend to do.
A letter noted as being sent “On or around August 2, 2023” reportedly stated that it would be releasing certain committed patients “by September 7, 2023”.
This lawsuit follows a 2015 case in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington known as the “Trueblood Order” that ruled DSHS breached its duty to provide services in violation of the Fourth Amendment and a $100 million fine from a federal judge for breaching the order.
The counties state that DSHS has used Trueblood order as a basis to decline all conversion patients.
“DSHS’s refusal to perform its legal duty to evaluate civil conversion patients deprives these patients of care they are statutorily entitled to, precludes any evaluation of whether the patients are likely to recommit potentially serious and violent offenses as a result of a mental health disorder, and risks returning these individuals to communities where they may pose a risk to themselves and others.”
The counties are requesting immediate action from DSHS to comply with court orders and provide relief from their actions, which they state has placed the burden onto local communities and will bring “immediate damage and harm”.