News Local/State

Lawsuit Claims Illinois Children Denied Medically Necessary Services

Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services logo

Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services

A lawsuit against Illinois’ Department of Healthcare and Family Services claims the state illegally withholds medically necessary services from children with severe mental health disorders. The case was settled in federal court this week.

Federal Medicaid law requires intensive home- or community-based services for children who receive a recommendation from a licensed practitioner. A class action lawsuit filed in 2011 claims Illinois violates that law.

Robert Farley, Jr., lead attorney on the suit, says some Illinois families are so desperate to get treatment for their children, they bring them to a psychiatric hospital and never come back for them.

“The hospital calls DCFS. DCFS will then take custody of the child and then basically place the child residentially," Farley says. "So you get residential services, but then you’ve given up custody of your child. Which is, you know, barbaric. You have to give up your child to get something necessary.”

The plaintiffs are Chicago-area resident Angela Buchanan and her then-14-year-old son, referred to as N.B. in the lawsuit. He’s been diagnosed with several mental health conditions, is non-verbal, and has been repeatedly hospitalized for physically harming himself. Lead attorney Robert Farley, Jr., says the failure of the state to provide in-home or community-based services for children like Buchanan’s son creates a dangerous cycle.

"They’re in the hospital for a couple weeks, they get stable, they get discharged in the community," Farley says. But once they are back at home, "there’s no services, and then they repeat the cycle."

Data from a 2010 report from the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services  shows roughly 18,000 children in Illinois have severe emotional or behavioral disorders. But only about 200 receive intensive mental health treatment. A federal judge this week approved a settlement agreement for the suit. HFS now has nine months to develop a plan for complying with federal law.

Farley estimates the changes could cost the state upwards of $400 million. His ultimate hope is that children with these disorders will get the necessary services they are entitled to.

"If they need a therapist 16 hours a day, so be it," he says. "There are great federal laws, but someone's not out there enforcing them." 

In a video on his website, Farley states that Illinois currently ranks last in the U.S. for serving people with developmental disabilities in small, community-based settings, due to their failure to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

More information about the lawsuit, including the proposed consent decree and the notice signed by the judge this week, can be found on Farley's website.

Follow Christine on Twitter: @CTHerman