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Opinion Northwest

Join the informed writers of The Times' editorial board in lively discussions at our blog, Opinion Northwest.

December 29, 2014 at 6:20 AM

Who is your unsung hero of the year? Here’s mine

The media’s year-end “Person of the Year” ritual honors headline-grabbing deeds, good or bad. I’m more interested in the behind-the-scenes folks who did something amazing, without the public kudos. Who’s your unsung hero of the year?

Craig Adams gets my vote. As a Pierce County Superior Court commissioner, Adams single-handedly kicked off a court case that is dramatically reforming Washington’s beleaguered mental health system. He’s gotten almost no credit. In fact, he was second-guessed by state lawyers all the way to the state Supreme Court.

But he was right. A Seattle Times editorial on Friday criticized what’s known as psychiatric boarding. That wouldn’t have happened, at least so quickly, without the work of Adams.

Here’s the back story. For years (and more so in the past few), the state has issued thousands of “single bed certifications” as a way to deal with an acute shortage of psychiatric hospital beds. These allowed a mentally ill patient to be involuntarily held for treatment even if they were being held in facilities not able to treat them, even if they were getting no treatment, and even if the patients were getting worse. The state Department of Social and Health Services essentially gave itself the power – presto! – to create psychiatric units consisting of a single bed in an emergency room. (Here’s a 2013 Seattle Times story documenting the trend).

Judges and court commissioners across the state went along with this inhumane practice. But Adams, who oversaw involuntary commitment cases in Pierce County,  called for a halt to this practice. He asked a simple question: Is psychiatric boarding even constitutional?

That resulted in a very unusual hearing. As Sean Robinson of the Tacoma News Tribune described, 11 patients rolled in on hospital gurneys, including a 19-year-old who’d jumped through a window. Adams called in representatives from the hospitals who were forced to board patients for up to 10 days. He heard from attorneys for the Department of Social and Health Services and by Pierce County, which later criticized Adams in court filings for over-reaching.

He ruled that boarding was unconstitutional. That determination bounced its way up the court system until August, when the Supreme Court wisely agreed. In a matter of months, at least 134 beds were added, and dozens more are on the way.

When I asked Adams about his ruling earlier this year, he said his work as the Pierce County Sheriff’s legal adviser exposed him to the huge cost of untreated mental illness. He said he’d read my February, 2013, column on psychiatric boarding and felt compelled to act.

Craig Adams gets my vote for unsung hero of the year. In the comment thread below, please take a moment and nominate your unsung hero, and explain why.

Comments | Topics: mental health, psychiatric boarding

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