Wed | Sep 19, 2018

Settlement reached in landmark Idaho juvenile care case

Published:Monday | June 15, 2015 | 12:00 AM
House majority leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, speaks about the child care enforcement bill during a special session of the Idaho legislature at the state Capitol building last month in Boise, Idaho.

BOISE, Idaho (AP):

A decades-long legal battle over the state of child mental-health services in Idaho has ended in a settlement that will require a major overhaul of the system.

It started in 1979 in Blackfoot at State Hospital South, a mental institution where 17 children with mental disorders were housed. Child molesters were housed there, too. There was no school, but there were mind-numbing drugs and beds with restraints.

One of the children housed there at the time was a 17-year-old named Jeff D. - a name that has since has become synonymous with mental-health reform in Idaho.

Jeff's mother had abandoned him, and at age 2, he had watched his foster parents beat his sister to death while they were on a berry-picking trip in western Washington, the Spokesman-Review reported. Psychiatrists later said they suspected the experience had irreparably scarred him.

When Howard Belodoff and Charlie Johnson, two attorneys barely out of law school, discovered the conditions in which Jeff and the other children were living, they filed a class-action lawsuit against the state. That was 1980.

During the next 35 years, the suit was repeatedly settled and reopened as Belodoff accused the state of failing to live up to its end of the bargain. Each time he won, a new settlement was drafted.

Through four decades, it was courtroom fisticuffs, but today, both sides have struck a different tone. Both sides made a decision that collaborating on solutions would work better than endless legal brawls.

Belodoff said this is the most optimistic he has felt during his time on the case.

"I am very encouraged by the fact that the governor himself has indicated that he recognises and supports the agreement," Belodoff said. "That's never happened in all the years (the case has been active)."

Ross Edmunds, behavioural health administrator with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, agreed.

"It feels like, for the first time, the resolution between the plaintiffs and the state has come to a collaborative process," he said.

Previously, the state's main concern was trying to stay out of the courtroom, Edmunds said. But sitting down with child advocates and collaborating to find solutions "changed the game".