It’s a growing problem in Washington: kids with developmental disabilities and complex behaviors who are stuck in the hospital with no reason for being there. Usually, they end up in the hospital after a crisis or an incident. But once the child is medically cleared to leave, their parents or their group home won’t come get them citing inadequate supports to manage the youth’s needs. While the state searches for alternative placements, the child waits.
In late September, an autistic, non-verbal 13-year-old boy was brought to Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett.
His name was Matthew.
He wasn’t sick. He hadn’t been injured. There was no medical emergency.
Instead, he’d been taken to the hospital after back-to-back incidents in the same day at the group home where he lived. First, he flooded a bathroom. Later, he attacked several staff members who called police to the home.
Nearly three months later, Matthew is still at the hospital in Everett. He spends his days watching SpongeBob Square Pants on TV or viewing music videos on his iPad. Four times a week someone from the school district comes to give him an hour of instruction.
When Matthew gets frustrated, he often acts out. At times, hospital staff have had to physically restrain and even sedate him, according to an advocate who’s working with the family. Hospital officials said restraints are used as a last resort.
His mother says she can’t manage her son’s challenging behaviors at home. And no alternative placement has been found.
The Northwest News Network is not using Matthew’s last name because he’s a minor.
Matthew represents an extreme case of what advocates and state officials say is a growing problem in Washington: youth with developmental disabilities getting stuck in the hospital.
The cases often follow a similar script. The child spirals into crisis and is taken to the hospital. But once they’re stabilized and it’s time for them to be discharged, the state can’t find an appropriate placement for them back in the community. And so, they languish in the hospital — for days, weeks and even months.
“It’s really hard for us to see kids in placements that aren’t appropriate for them,” said Laura Knapp, the director of behavioral health for Providence Northwest, which includes the hospital in Everett. “These kids need an appropriate placement and our beds are prepared for medical need.”
Knapp wouldn’t comment on Matthew’s case specifically, citing patient privacy.
It’s difficult to determine how often kids are getting stuck in the hospital in Washington because there’s no hard data, but anecdotes abound.
“We have seen a significant increase in the amount of kids that … are ‘quote’ stuck,” said Maureen O’Brien, the director of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Seattle Children’s hospital.
The Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) said it’s hearing the same thing more broadly from its 100-plus members.
“In the last couple of months, we’ve heard more concern about kids who are getting stuck who have a complexity of needs and there’s not enough services and capacity in our system … to get them the care that they need,” said Zosia Stanley, WSHA’s vice president and associate counsel.
Over the past two months, the state’s Office of Developmental Disabilities Ombuds said it’s worked with nine teens and young adults, ages 13 to 22, who’ve been hospitalized with no medical need, representing a substantial increase in complaints involving this age group.
“One young person spent two months in the emergency room. Two were recently dropped off at the emergency room by their residential service provider. One teen has been in the hospital since January — almost a year,” wrote Betty Schwieterman, the ombuds, in an email.
Attorney Susan Kas at Disability Rights Washington said her organization is also hearing about these cases and “beginning to investigate to understand.”
Washington’s Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) doesn’t track how many children are in hospitals awaiting discharge. But the agency said it’s also aware of “a number of cases.”