Mentally ill boy, 13, held two weeks in emergency room

Court orders discharge after state can't find place for him to get treatment

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SEDRO-WOOLLEY — For two weeks, a 13-year-old boy diagnosed with serious mental health issues sat in an emergency room bed at United General Hospital. Besides daily phone calls to facilities across the state, the hospital wasn't sure what it could do other than keep the boy and hope a placement opened.

An involuntary treatment hearing was held Thursday. With no one qualified to testify about the child's condition, a court commissioner ordered the boy be released without treatment.

"The mental health system has failed this young boy," said attorney Dennis Scott of Anacortes, who argued for the boy's release.

Testimony indicated the boy has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. At the hearing, his mother tearfully expressed her frustration over her failure to get him help.

After the hearing, Scott learned a bed was found for his client.

Scott routinely represents patients during these hearings and said this case is far too common and illustrates the poor job the state has done to take care of its mentally ill citizens. This case was particularly egregious, Scott said. The child was acting out aggressively and was in a crisis state.

But during two weeks in United General's ER, he received no mental health treatment and the state found no placement for him.

"I get outraged because, quite frankly, that shouldn't happen," Scott said. "This is by far the worst I've seen."

Jim Shreffler, a mental health expert with regional care provider Compass Health, said there are only four facilities in the entire state that have resources for juveniles, each with roughly 15 beds. And he said those resources have continued to shrink while demand grows.

"We are a wealthy country, we are a wealthy state, yet we somehow pretend that we can't afford to provide these services," he said.

United General officials said the emergency room isn't set up to handle mental-health cases or long-term care but has few options when treatment beds can't be found for the mentally ill.

And worse than the cost — which is thousands of dollars, officials said — is that highly trained ER resources are tied up."It is an outrageous problem," said nursing director Carsi Padrnos.