DRDC Goes to Court in M.J. v. District of Columbia Case

July 25, 2023

On July 10th, DRDC advocated at a hearing for its ongoing federal lawsuit against the District of Columbia: M.J. v. District of Columbia. In 2018, DRDC and the National Center for Youth Law, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, and Schulte Roth + Zabel LLP sued the District on behalf of DRDC and Medicaid-eligible DC children with mental health disabilities. The lawsuit alleges that the District has failed to provide these children with intensive community-based services (ICBS), putting them at risk for institutionalization in psychiatric facilities and other restrictive institutions. This unnecessary institutionalization violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C., and the Medicaid Act, which protect children’s right to receive care provided by the government in the most integrated setting appropriate.

On Monday, July 10th, DRDC attended a hearing on the Plaintiffs' Motion for Class Certification. Class certification would establish that there is a larger group of children in the District than the four individual children currently named in the suit who do not receive needed ICBS and are at risk of unnecessary institutionalization. Schulte Roth + Zabel's Jason Mitchell argued the Plaintiffs' side, asking the judge to certify a class of children in DC who are Medicaid eligible, have mental health disabilities, are not receiving ICBS, and are institutionalized or at serious risk of institutionalization. This is one step in making sure that the suit brings about systemic change in the District’s mental health system.

Rates of mental health conditions for children in DC are alarming. Over 20,000 or 22% of children ages 3-17 in the District have a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral problem. Strikingly, in 2019, 14% of middle school students and 15% of high school students (over 19,000 children) in DC attempted suicide. Despite these numbers, a 2022 report by DRDC shows, the District has repeatedly failed to provide youth with comprehensive mental health services in their communities.

Between 2020 and 2021, the number of children receiving community-based services known as Evidence-Based Practices (EBPs) and served by the District’s Children and Adolescent Mobile Psychiatric Service (ChAMPS) decreased by 21% and over 40%, respectively. As a result, many children in the District face a cycle of institutionalization in psychiatric and juvenile detention facilities. Between 2016 and 2019, more than 200 Medicaid-eligible children in DC were admitted to a psychiatric facility more than once. In the same time frame, over 400 Medicaid-eligible children were institutionalized in residential treatment centers under the custody of DC’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. This institutionalization violates federal law and completely disrupts the lives of DC children and their families, as the children are forced to spend long periods of time away from their communities and loved ones. The M.J. suit hopes to end this avoidable and frequent institutionalization in the District.

This hearing allowed DRDC and our co-counsel in the case to argue why certifying the Plaintiffs as a class of children in the District is important. More discussions will follow in the coming months, and both parties will appear at another hearing in October to continue their arguments on the issue. Look out for updates on the progress of the case in future newsletters!

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