(The Center Square) — A coalition of 22 Washington state counties and the Washington State Association of Counties are suing the Washington Department of Social and Health Services over the department’s administration of behavioral health services.
According to the lawsuit, filed in Pierce County Superior Court, the department failed a fundamental obligation by refusing to provide mental health services to conversion patients. Despite court orders and state laws requiring DSHS to provide such treatment, the department asserted that it is no longer obligated to evaluate or treat patients whose criminal charges are dismissed, citing a federal judge’s orders in a separate case.
The coalition includes Asotin, Clallam, Cowlitz, Douglas, Grant, Grays Harbor, Island, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Klickitat, Lewis, Lincoln, Pacific, Pierce, Skagit, Skamania, Snohomish, Spokane, Thurston, Whatcom and Yakima counties.
The coalition says DSHS is court-ordered to evaluate an individual deemed unable to understand their charges and provide behavioral health services if found to be necessary. This process is known as a civil conversion commitment.
The lawsuit claims that the department asserted it is no longer obligated to evaluate or treat patients whose criminal charges are dismissed if they are determined not competent to stand trial.
According to a press release from King County, there is nothing in the court’s orders that interferes with the DSHS’s obligation or ability to provide evaluations and services.
“The reality is that people in these circumstances are often failed by multiple systems that, rather than offering hope and restoration, leave them untreated and at risk of reoffending,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said in a statement. “It is the state’s responsibility in these circumstances to provide people treatment and a chance to recover.
“People whose charges are dropped are then released back into the community without facing trial, nor receiving treatment from the department.
The lawsuit states that DSHS has selectively refused to admit any civil conversion patients since at least December 2022.
The department told The Center Square in an email that the challenge of tackling the mental health problem does not become easier when counties demand the state and superior court ignore a federal court order.
“Over the past nine fiscal years, requests for [the Washington Department of Social and Health Services] to provide inpatient evaluations and competency restoration services have increased by roughly 145%,” the department said. “These large and unpredicted increases in the number of county criminal court orders have exceeded the large number of beds already added to the forensic system.” DSHS added that it is working as quickly as possible to increase the number of treatment beds for civil conversion patients, mentioning the former Cascade Behavioral Health facility in Tukwila, which the state acquired earlier this month. The department added that it does not have the authority to build beds outside its facilities.
“We will continue to push forward with multiple new facilities, but the demand for beds is only increasing,” the department said.
The counties’ motion for preliminary injunction could be heard as early as Sept. 8 in Pierce County Superior Court. The case is known as Pierce County vs. Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.