By Dianne Smith
Jeff D. was a 15-year-old who, after being declared emotionally disturbed and mildly mentally disabled, was placed in the custody of the state of Idaho. The problem was, the state did not have the mental health services to provide what Jeff needed. He was held against his will in a state institution with adults, some of whom were convicted sex offenders and other criminals.
In August 1980, a federal class action lawsuit, Jeff D. versus Otter was filed on behalf of indigent Idaho youth with severe emotional and mental disabilities. Thirty-five years later the lawsuit is finally settled. Now, children in Idaho who are identified as emotionally disturbed will have access to multiple services provided in their community to be able to stay in their own home and school. Once fully implemented the settlement from the lawsuit could provide as many as 9,000 Idaho children with improved access to community-based mental health services.
Howard Belodoff, the Boise attorney, was just two years out of law school when he first took on the case in 1980. He has pursued it ever since on behalf of the children of Idaho. He met Jeff D. at the state hospital when Jeff was just 17. He learned that Jeff had received little if any mental health services or education while being housed there. The youngster begged the lawyer to get him out and to get him the help he needed. His troubled life had included seeing abusive foster parents beat his 4-year-old sister to death when he was just two years old. He never received any help to deal with the trauma he endured at such a young age. Belodoff recognized that the earlier you intervene the better results you get and you reduce the risk of bigger problems later on.
As early as July 2017 children who meet eligibility criteria under the terms of the Jeff D. Settlement Agreement will be entitled to comprehensive community-based mental health services and supports. New and enhanced services will be made available across the state in a phased approach. New services will begin with respite care and newly developed partial hospitalization. One of the most exciting things about this lawsuit is the involvement of the family including the child in the decision making around their treatment through a model known as the Child and Family Team. The goal is to empower them in their own recovery to health. This team approach will involve a meeting of all those invested in the child’s well being to provide a collaborative treatment plan.
Over the next four years the state will develop a system in all child-serving systems including public education to screen children for unmet mental health needs. There will be services put in place to meet the needs of these children with the goal being to prevent mental health struggles as an adult. Once the services are in place the comprehensive plan will be monitored for another three years before the lawsuit is dismissed.
The hope is that with additional support and services children who are struggling with mental health issues will get the help they need to be able to become adults who contribute to the community and do not become part of the adult legal system.
If you have a child who is struggling, there are wonderful counselors in town who provide mental health services under Optum and can help link you with services. For parents who have struggled with getting their child the help they need this may be the beginning of getting that help.
Dianne Smith, LMFT is a licensed counselor who works with both children and adults. She has offices in Bonners Ferry and Sandpoint and can be reached at 951-440-0982.
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