Pierce County judge outlaws 'parking' mentally ill

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TACOMA — The practice of temporarily “parking” the mentally ill in hospital emergency rooms without treatment violates state and federal law, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Kathryn Nelson ruled in a decision that could affect how mental patients are treated across the state.

The ruling Monday upholds a court commissioner ruling in March. County and state attorneys have asked for the ruling to be put on hold while they appeal, The News Tribune reported Tuesday.

The practice known as single-bed certification is intended as a stopgap measure while patients await evaluation, treatment or detention at mental health facilities. The trouble is they’re not getting it. Instead, the single-bed certifications stack up for days in a clogged mental health system, according to the ruling.

“It is simply not acceptable to violate the civil rights of those that the state detains for mental health issues by detaining them without evaluation and treatment,” Nelson said.

Under state law, such patients are supposed to receive mental health evaluations and treatment within 72 hours.

During a 10-month period in 2012, 189 Pierce County mental patients waited in hospital rooms for a total of 910 days. Over the same period in King County, 653 patients spent 2,200 days waiting for mental health beds.

Backed by state attorneys, county prosecutors argued that hospital rooms were better than nothing.

“I think having a place to be that’s not causing anybody else harm or themselves harm, that’s a step in the right direction,” said Ken Nichols, deputy prosecutor.

Defense attorneys who represent mentally ill patients facing involuntary commitment argued that detaining people in hospitals without treatment violated state law and federally protected civil rights.

Under Nelson’s ruling, lawyers for patients waiting more than 72 hours for a mental health evaluation could be immediately released.