As some people in custody wait longer and longer for beds at Washington’s psychiatric facilities, an attorney for two lodged in Clark County Jail is taking the state to court.
Kari Reardon represents two people who have spent at least a month behind bars, although they haven’t been convicted of a crime. Courts have ruled in both cases that they need psychiatric care before they can stand trial.
At the crux of the issue is Washington’s beleaguered behavioral health care system. The state’s two psychiatric hospitals do not have enough beds to help rehabilitate dozens of people in need. Wait times have ballooned for beds. People in custody are often left languishing in county jails or are released back into the public.
The state Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees the system, has been in the middle of a game of musical chairs, trying to free-up beds to treat a growing number of people in need of care, officials said.
Reardon said her clients are suffering and placed blame on the Department of Social and Health Services.
“If you look at their website, they say they’re transforming lives. Presumably you want to transform lives for the better when you’re a mental health facility, and they’re not doing that,” Reardon said.
One of Reardon’s clients is a 33-year-old woman who has been jailed since July 5. She has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and allegedly threatened to kill a family member. A judge ordered July 20 that the woman needed a psychiatric bed before her trial could proceed.
The other client, a 36-year-old man, has been in jail since April 24. He had violated a restraining order that a family member had placed on him. While in court, he presented as “experiencing paranoid delusional beliefs.” On July 25, a judge ordered him sent to the state hospital.
Reardon also represented a handful of other clients in similar circumstances. Four had been able to get beds and another posted bail.
But the two cases where people are still in custody, she argued, are proof enough that the state agency is neglecting its duty. In Clark County Superior Court, Reardon recently filed motions to have the agency pay hundreds of dollars per day to her clients.
“We’re not holding DSHS accountable when we allow them to continue on this path where they’re not providing treatment,” she said. “It’s disconcerting because it’s causing actual harms.”
A Clark County judge has not yet ruled on the motion. Reardon said she is seeking $2,000 per day in damages.
That is not an anomaly. In dozens of cases this year throughout Washington, local judges have levied daily fines against the state agency. The agency has paid about $1.9 million in damages in 2023, according to court records.
Often, the agency is fined hundreds of dollars per day for an incarcerated person who ends up spending months in jail, the records show.
Wait times and potential solutions have been a frequent topic for the state agency.
This month, 22 counties sued DSHS because it recently changed a policy that can make it harder to get some incarcerated people out of jail and into beds. Agency officials have said the change is to balance multiple court mandates. They have also pointed to new projects to add more beds.
In June, the agency spent $29.9 million to buy a formerly private psychiatric hospital in Tukwila. The hospital will bring more than 100 new beds into the system by the end of the year, according to DSHS spokesperson Tyler Hemstreet.
In Southwest Washington, the agency is also building an entirely new facility. A 48-bed hospital is slated to open near the campus of Washington State University in Vancouver.
“I think the leadership is really hoping to have the wait times really ironed out and hopefully stabilized,” Hemstreet said.
That facility was slated to open in 2024, but it has run into snags, delaying its opening until February 2025. In one instance, some neighbors to the project fought it during the lengthy land-use permitting process.
Hemstreet said the local facility has also become more expensive. Its price tag is now $79 million — a 40% uptick from what it was originally budgeted.
Reardon, the attorney, said she wasn’t optimistic that the new facilities would make a big difference right away. Even with more beds, she said, other parts of the system are bottlenecked, too.
Reardon said it takes weeks before a mental health professional can even evaluate an inmate to see if they need to psychiatric help.
“There’s so much that needs to go into setting up this process,” she said. “My hope is with this lawsuit that DSHS gets their act together and does something faster.”