Federal Lawsuit Charges ACS With Improperly Confining Foster Children In Psychiatric Hospitals for Prolonged Periods
THURSDAY, MAY 13, 2010

A federal class action civil rights lawsuit, filed yesterday, charges that the City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) has an ongoing practice of keeping children improperly in acute care psychiatric hospitals for prolonged periods of time, sometimes as long as a year, even after doctors find them ready for release. Many of these children have been brought to the hospitals unnecessarily, for behavior reasons or mental health needs that could have been met in the community. By failing to place these children in the least restrictive, most home-like and integrated environment that meets their needs, ACS is violating federal and New York State laws and regulations, the lawsuit charges. These children remain in psychiatric hospitals for weeks, months, and even a year.

The lawsuit, A.M. et al. v. Mattingly, was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York by The Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Practice and the law firm of Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler LLP.

Plaintiffs are children under the age of 18 yeas who are in foster care in the custody of ACS. The defendant is John B. Mattingly in his official capacity as the Commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services.

The lawsuit points out the shocking and harmful treatment experienced by vulnerable foster children including:

  • ACS and some of its foster care agencies are using acute care psychiatric hospitals as a “placement” alternative for children by failing to provide community-based mental health services and less restrictive home environments.
  • Some children, who do not need emergency psychiatric treatment, are brought to psychiatric hospitals because the foster care agency fears the child will run away from his/her foster care placement.
  • Some children are left in psychiatric hospitals so long they decompensate mentally because of the institutional nature of their confinement.
  • Children who remain in psychiatric hospitals when they medically do not need to be there are harmed in several ways because important rights are violated.
  • Children are denied their right to visit with families, both foster and biological. Many New York City children are placed in hospitals as far away as Suffolk County. The geographical separation causes hardships on families and results in insufficient family contact.
  • Children are denied their right to an education because without appropriate community-based foster care placements, they are not allowed to attend local district schools and do not receive lawful educational programs while hospitalized.

According to Kimberly Forte, one of the Legal Aid attorneys for the children, “ACS has no system to determine which children in its care are in acute psychiatric hospitals. This had led to many children being stuck in hospitals after they are ready to leave, because often the foster care agencies they are assigned to do not have appropriate placements to meet their needs.”

Lisa E. Cleary, a lawyer at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP commented, “This lawsuit seeks to stop ACS from continuing its illegal practice of using acute care psychiatric hospitals as long-term foster care placements. These children should not be forced to languish in such highly restrictive placements when they are medically ready for discharge.”

The lawsuit asks the Court to enjoin ACS from bringing children in foster care to psychiatric hospitals unless such intervention is medically necessary and less-restrictive options have been tried. A preliminary injunction is sought, ordering ACS to immediately place the plaintiffs who are currently in acute psychiatric hospitals, despite having been found ready for discharge, into the least restrictive foster care placement suitable to their needs, as required by law, and ordering ACS to immediately begin tracking, monitoring, and providing services to all children in its care who are in acute psychiatric hospitals.

The lawsuit also asks the Court to require ACS to develop and implement plans for scheduled family visits and for lawful schooling for the children in psychiatric hospitals. ACS should also be required to make the least restrictive placements available within 24 hours to children who are ready to be discharged, and if a proper placement is not available, to house the child at ACS Children’s Center if an appropriate placement is not yet available. The lawsuit also asks the Court to require that ACS train its staff and the staff of contract foster care agencies regarding inappropriate confinement of foster children in psychiatric hospitals.

Lawyers representing the children from The Legal Aid Society include Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief; Nancy Rosenbloom, Director of the Special Litigation and Law Reform Unit of the Juvenile Rights Practice; and Kimberly Forte, a staff attorney in the unit. Lisa E. Cleary, Leonard M. Braman, Jordan M. Engelhardt, and William Schmedlin are counsel from Patterson Belknap.