ACLU sues Kansas over excessive wait times at understaffed Larned State Hospital

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TOPEKA — The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and the National Police Accountability Project are suing Kansas over delays in mental health evaluations at the chronically understaffed Larned State Hospital.

The class action lawsuit, filed Thursday in federal court, says individuals who face criminal charges have had to wait behind bars for as long as 13 months before getting a pretrial competency evaluation. In some cases, that is more than the time they would serve if they were convicted.

The state hospital has been a flashpoint of controversy for years because of long wait lists for mental health treatment. The ACLU said the facility only fills 65 of its 120 beds because it lacks the staffing to cover shifts in the unit, and more than 100 people are currently on the waiting list.

“Stakeholders have been sounding the alarm about the backlog at Larned for years, and the wait times for competency evaluations and restoration treatment in Kansas is worse than in almost all other states,” said Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas. “People across Kansas are languishing in county jails, despite not being convicted of any crime, simply because the state has failed to provide them with timely competency evaluations or constitutionally required mental health treatment.”

The organizations filed the lawsuit on behalf of four individuals who are not receiving the mental health care they need, and whose criminal cases are stalled while waiting.

The Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services administers the hospital. According to the KDADS website, nearly 1,000 employees work at the 78-acre campus and serve 450 patients daily. The hospital website shows open positions for nurses, a clinical therapist, social workers, human services counselor, psychologist and security officer.

In January, the agency ordered a security analysis of Larned State Hospital after a second patient had escaped from the sexual predator treatment program within six months. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported in February that understaffing contributed to physical and sexual violence at the hospital. The newspaper reported in 2018 that staff was being forced to work 16-hour shifts because of unfilled positions.

A state audit in 2016 pointed to capacity problems and warned of consequences. The audit estimated costs to run the facility would more than double by 2025 and that the hospital would struggle to find enough staff because of a lack of available labor in the rural area, KCUR reported. The town of Larned, which is southwest of Great Bend in western Kansas, has a population of about 3,700.

The lawsuit by the ACLU of Kansas and National Police Accountability Project asks the court “to reduce the unconstitutional, unlawful and health-deteriorating wait times for evaluations and treatment,” the groups said in a news release.

“It is unconscionable and illegal to jail people who have not been convicted of a crime simply because KDADS refuses to invest in community treatment alternatives,” said Lauren Bonds, a former ACLU of Kansas legal director who is now with the National Police Accountability Project.

“Kansas is not the only state that has a high demand for competency services, nor is it the only state to experience the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bonds said. “These delays come down to how little value the state places on the wellbeing of people in the carceral system.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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