In 1987, the Maryland Disability Law Center (now Disability Rights Maryland) filed suit in federal court on behalf of children in the custody of the state who were being subjected to prolonged, unnecessary and harmful hospitalization. Because the state refused for years to accept the professional judgment of its own employees that the children did not need institutional care, an independent panel of experts was established to advise the court. The panel issued a report in 1990 finding that children who remained confined in hospitals past the time they were ready for discharge suffered, among other forms of harm: clinical deterioration and/or exacerbation of illness, educational deterioration, diminished feelings of self-worth, aggravated feelings of rejection and anger, overexposure to acutely ill children and delay or arrest of social and emotional development due to lack of activities and lack of contact with peers and family.
The panel also found that there was a “major deficiency” of in-state resources in virtually every category of less restrictive care and faulted the state for giving low priority to children’s mental health services over a period of years. Thirty years ago, it took the intervention of the federal court to protect the constitutional rights of children in state custody to liberty and appropriate treatment and training. Now, in 2020, The Sun reports that lawmakers have determined that the state legislature needs to intervene to protect foster children from this same harm (“With nowhere to go, foster children staying on in Maryland hospitals and psychiatric units after treatment,” Feb. 3).
This should never have been allowed to happen again. The state must not only end the unnecessary confinement of these children and move them to appropriate settings, but also undo the harm it has done to them by providing all needed services, mentors and activities to help them re-engage with their communities and catch up with their peers academically and socially.
Winifred De Palma, Baltimore
The writer was one of the attorneys representing the children in the 1987 lawsuit.
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