BOISE – After 18 months of negotiations, Idaho has agreed to settle the long-running Jeff D. lawsuit over children’s mental health services in the state, committing to remake its system of providing care to youngsters with mental illness.
It’s a case that’s continued through 35 years, five governors, four judges and six appeals. When the case was first filed in 1980, kids with mental illness in Idaho – like the lead plaintiff, Jeff Davis – were committed to state mental hospitals where they received no treatment, no schooling and were housed with adult sex offenders.
Much has changed in Idaho because of the lawsuit. Now, all sides say the state is poised to set up a system that will ensure kids with serious mental problems and their families get appropriate services they can access from their homes and communities – a system that could become a model.
“Hopefully we will see results – I expect it,” said Howard Belodoff, the Boise attorney who was just two years out of law school when he first took on the case in 1980, and has pursued it ever since on behalf of the children of Idaho.
When Belodoff first encountered 17-year-old Davis at State Hospital South in Blackfoot, Idaho, in 1979, the youngster begged the lawyer to get him out of there. His troubled life included seeing abusive foster parents beat his 4-year-old sister to death when he was just 2 years old; he grew up to be a transient who was in and out of mental hospitals. Belodoff hasn’t heard from him since 2002 and doesn’t know if he’s alive.
“You intervene earlier, and you can expect a better result,” Belodoff said. “You don’t want any more Jeff D.’s.”
The settlement, filed Friday with the U.S. District Court in Boise and personally signed by Gov. Butch Otter, commits the state to a new, integrated system in which children with serious mental health issues will be identified and offered a broad array of community-based services, and all state agencies, from juvenile justice to Health and Welfare to the schools, will collaborate.
“It changes the dynamic of the system,” said Ross Edmunds, administrator of the Division of Behavioral Health at the Department of Health and Welfare. His division will oversee the new system.
“I’ve been around since about 2000, I’ve been working on and around Jeff D.,” Edmunds said. The big change with this settlement, he said, is that the state “stopped thinking about resolving a lawsuit” and instead started “thinking about how to fix the system, how to make it better for children and families, and let the lawsuit resolve itself.”
Belodoff said the settlement specifies what services will be required and demands cooperation among state agencies.
“This is an agreement which has specific outcomes and commitments, and lays out an access model.” The system also will use Medicaid as a “backbone,” to maximize federal matching funds for services provided to Idaho kids where possible.
Otter praised the “hard work and determination” that led to the settlement.
“I’m proud of our people,” Otter said. “I’m proud of the processes and priorities they have put in place.” The settlement launches a nine-month period in which state agencies will develop an implementation plan to specify how all the commitments made in the settlement will be accomplished. That will be followed by a four-year period for the new system to be put in place, and three years of monitoring after that. If all sides agree that all commitments have been met, they’ll jointly ask the court to dismiss the lawsuit – but keep in place a permanent injunction requiring the new system to be maintained.
The settlement also includes an agreement for the state to pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees that will be filed this week; state lawmakers already approved up to $615,000 to cover that, anticipating the settlement. That move makes sure any money spent on legal fees won’t be subtracted from money available for services to children.
Belodoff said stakeholders, including the plaintiffs, advocates, providers and families, all had input as the settlement agreement was crafted, and that was a new experience for him in this case.
The case has loomed large throughout the past 35 years for Belodoff, even as he built a career as a civil rights attorney; among his cases was the one that led to Idaho establishing a separate women’s prison, the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center.
“But this one’s a little bit special,” he said.
“I’m not walking away,” he added. “I’m going to hold the state to their agreement, that’s for sure. But I’m expecting that I won’t have to do much to do that. … They’ve agreed, and they’re going to do it.”
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