U.S. investigates Alaska’s psychiatric treatment of children

Children play in the snow Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, in Toksook Bay, Alaska. (Gregory Bull/AP Photo)
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation into whether the state of Alaska unnecessarily institutionalizes children with behavioural problems.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said Jan. 21 it had launched an investigation into a complaint from the Alaska Disability Law Center, Anchorage Daily News reported Wednesday.

Leslie Jaehning, the centre’s attorney, said the complaint filed last year focuses on a rising number of Alaska children and teenagers sent to psychiatric treatment facilities in other states, along with hospitals in Alaska, because of limited, less-restrictive treatment options.

A letter from attorney Patrick Holkins with the Civil Rights Division said the investigation is being conducted “to determine whether the State of Alaska unnecessarily institutionalizes children with behavioural health conditions, in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

The letter also references the Olmstead case, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision stating that the “unjustified segregation” of people with disabilities is unlawful discrimination.

The centre’s complaint focused on the number of Alaska children sent to often for-profit, locked psychiatric treatment facilities in other states, separating them from their families, Jaehning said. As of March 2020, when the centre researched the complaint, about 120 Alaska children and teenagers were in facilities located outside the state.

Alaska officials could alternatively invest in programs to allow the children to stay in their homes and communities, Jaehning said. Children are being moved out of Alaska when “community-based services are what they need,” Jaehning said.

Alaska Department of Health and Social Services spokesman Clinton Bennett said the agency is aware of the investigation, and that the state Department of Law has communicated with the Justice Department.

The investigation is expected to take at least a year, Jaehning said.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Hospitalization for youth with mental health disorders up 58% in Canada’s Northwest Territories over past decade, CBC News

Sweden: Social Democrats lose Arctic stronghold over healthcare in Sweden’s regional elections, Radio Sweden

United States: Alaska gov seeks new study of psychiatric institute privatization, Alaska Public Media

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