July 2015 Bar Bulletin
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School District Steps up While ITA Court Challenges Mount


Maybe the stars aligned; maybe one or two of you readers made a call. In any event, I am happy to report that after years of unsuccessfully trying to engage the Seattle School District about including the Alder Academy in the new Children and Family Justice Center, the District has come to the table! We are still working out the details, but this is the best news the County has received from the School District in a very long time.

In addition, Superintendent Larry Nyland expressed his willingness to participate in the Steering Committee for the County's Disproportionality Action Plan. We are delighted. There is no way to address seriously the school-to-prison pipeline without the District's participation. By the time this column goes to print, we will have announced the membership of a unique group comprised of about 50 percent "systems people" (school superintendents, police chiefs, etc.) and 50 percent community members and leaders, including some of our most vociferous critics.

We hope to hire a talented facilitator who can manage strong and passionate people talking about tough issues. There is no question that this is the most exciting chapter of my career to date.

Excitement might be one way to describe recent weeks on our Involuntary Treatment Act (ITA) calendar at Harborview as well. As you may recall, we have seen a 60-percent increase in caseload over the past five years; there was a 9-percent increase in the first quarter of this year alone. As if this were not enough to keep Judge Ken Schubert and Commissioner Hollis Holman busy, in April we learned that the ambulance company that brought patients who needed to be on gurneys to the courtroom would be terminating its contract with Crisis and Commitments with 30 days' notice.

The ambulance company's decision was made for financial and operational reasons, and despite many efforts the County was not able to reverse its decision. The other major ambulance company in town at one time served ITA Court, but terminated its contract because the State failed to timely pay its bill for transportation of Medicaid patients. As of this writing, the County has been unable to entice the second company to come back.

What were we to do? A good 15 percent of our cases at ITA involve patients who are too unstable to be transported to court in a van. And yet they have to see a judge within 72 hours of their detention. The only option we could envision was to conduct hearings for these patients via video hookup from the hospitals.

Sounds easy; but, of course, it is not. We are still operating with the same number of attorneys, even though defense counsel have to leave court at noon to represent their "gurney" clients at their hospitals. It is more difficult to interview witnesses and negotiate cases by phone or video. And it is hard to arrange the all-important meetings between family members and patients that can result in a patient returning home, or else hearing Mom say: "Son, you need to get better before I can take you back home."

Still, those unstable patients are no longer being strapped to gurneys for ambulance rides across town and then held in restraints for hours while waiting for their cases to be called. Judge Schubert reports that they are now whisked into the video room straight from their hospital rooms. They generally present better this way than they do after five hours in four-point restraints. The jury is out on whether they really understand what is happening and feel they are being treated fairly, however. This is just a step that circumstances have forced the Court to take.

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