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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

McNeil changing treatment to avoid ‘warehousing’ some sexual predators

The administration building at the Special Commitment Center at McNeil Island,  Sept. 21, 2006. (Joe Barrentine / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – More than two dozen residents with severe mental disabilities at Washington’s Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island will stop being “warehoused” and start getting treatment that could help them.

A settlement in a case against the center and the Department of Social and Health Services is expected to clear the way to develop new treatment programs for 27 current and any future residents who are sexual predators with mental disabilities that keep them participating in standard programs designed to treat the behavior that resulted in their commitment.

The problems range from low IQ and learning disabilities to brain injuries, according to the lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Washington in February. The center has a five-step system that sexual predators may complete to qualify for less restrictive confinement or release, but the mental disabilities of the 27 residents in question keep them from taking part. The center has no alternative system.

As a result, the residents are essentially stuck in place. “It runs the gamut,” said Rachael Seevers, staff attorney for Disability Rights Washington. “A lot of them had been there for a very long time, essentially warehoused.”

Those residents are routinely punished for behavior such as failing to follow orders, feeding wildlife, self harm, suicide attempts and assault – behaviors stemming from their mental disabilities, according to the lawsuit. As a result, they are placed in seclusion for days or weeks at a time.

One resident with a traumatic brain injury and dementia has spent more than two decades at the center, and spent 276 of 413 days in a solitary confinement unit, the lawsuit says, adding that outside evaluators have described such actions as punishment, not treatment.

A special panel of three outside experts will oversee program changes that will have a series of benchmarks and are expected to take about four years, Seevers said.

The group filed the lawsuit in February as a class action that identified three residents by their initials. But it had investigated reports for more than a year before that, and discussed the problems and possible solutions with officials from the center and the department that oversees it.

Previous lawsuits resulted in changes in treatment for patients at Eastern and Western State Hospitals, which will become the basis for some individualized treatment at the McNeil Island center.

In a press release, Bill Van Hook, the chief executive officer of the center, said those residents will also get more individualized medical, psychological and rehabilitative care based on their mental illness or disability.

Many of the changes in the settlement have been implemented, and the center will work with the rights group to put others in place “while at the same time maintaining our obligation to keep the community safe,” he said.