In 2019, the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) placed him in a residential program in Pennsylvania. The timing was bad. He had a baby on the way.
“I think that was the worst part of everything: DYRS sent me out to a residential placement away from home when my daughter was about to be born,” B.T. said in a court filing. “I only got to see her on Zoom for months . . . I wanted to stay in the community, but DYRS sent me off anyway.”
B.T.’s story was one of six first-person narratives released Friday in a long-simmering federal lawsuit brought by mental health advocates against the District that alleges the city does not do enough to treat children with mental health problems in their own communities.
In 2018, advocates sued the city in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, saying mentally ill children “suffer dramatically curtailed life opportunities due to Defendants’ continuing, long-standing failure to satisfy federal laws requiring . . . medically necessary services to prevent unnecessary institutionalization.”
On Friday, attorneys filed six first-person stories as they sought class-action certification in a lawsuit they said affects hundreds of vulnerable children who need community-based services.
“With such services, the Plaintiff Children can live in their homes and communities, the most integrated setting appropriate for them,” attorneys said in a motion filed July 19. “Without [them], they are needlessly institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals, residential treatment facilities, and other institutional settings, and cycle in and out of those institutions where they are segregated and isolated.”
A spokeswoman for the District’s Department of Behavioral Health declined to comment.
The declarations offered a glimpse of the struggles young, mentally ill District residents and their families face as they seek appropriate treatment.
One woman, identified as M.P. in court documents, said she was caring for her 16-year-old great-grandson, who was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, severe depression and bipolar disorder, among other conditions.
After multiple arrests and residential placements in Virginia and Tennessee, her great-grandson was placed in a DYRS facility in the District, where he contracted the coronavirus in December and was placed in isolation until February.
“He always wants to be home with me, but his service providers haven’t given him the option of getting services at home,” M.P. said in her declaration. “I don’t think he would have had to go to residential placements if he had received services that helped him live at home.”
In another declaration, a woman identified as L.M. said she had a child with a man she met at St. Elizabeths, D.C.’s public psychiatric facility.
“I knew immediately that something was different about [her],” L.M. said. “In the hospital after her birth, she never stopped crying.”
L.M.’s daughter, now 20, has “a long history of mental health and intellectual disabilities and has experienced multiple psychiatric hospitalizations and residential placements,” including one in Montgomery County where she was physically and sexually abused, according to her declaration. Now, she lives with L.M. and is expecting her second child.
“Because of my own experience with mental health issues, I understand how critical it is for [her] to take her medications and try to live right,” L.M. said. “I believe I made the mistake of thinking residential placements would help. They clearly did not, and I understand now that what would have really helped . . . was to keep her safe at home, so that she could receive the support, medication, and therapy she needed.”
Lewis Bossing, senior staff attorney at the D.C. nonprofit Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, one of the organizations that filed the suit, said in a statement that the lawsuit presented overwhelming evidence that intervention is needed.
“We hope this spurs the District to work with us to address its systems for serving these children,” Bossing said.