Civil Rights Groups Sue District for Weeks-Long Water Crisis at St. Elizabeths
WASHINGTON – The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the ACLU of the District of Columbia, and the law firm of Arnold & Porter LLP, have filed a federal class action lawsuit against Barbara Bazron, Director of the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health; Mark Chastang, CEO of St. Elizabeths Hospital; and the District of Columbia for the horrifying conditions at the hospital during a weeks-long water outage. Brought on behalf of four patients there, the case seeks immediate relief for unconstitutional conditions arising from the water shut-off and for a permanent injunction that the District have a plan for hospital operations in the event of future water problems.
“I can’t overstate how egregious the conditions are at the hospital,” says Margaret Hart, Counsel at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “A hospital without water cannot really function as a hospital. I visited the facility and had the opportunity to speak with several of the patients. They are living in appalling unsanitary conditions and are anxious about the situation. They said they are just sitting around, stuck in their units all day without access to treatment or group therapy. These patients have been deprived of the very services Saint Elizabeths is supposed to provide, intensive mental health treatment, and the District’s response has put the patients’ mental and physical health at risk. The lack of attention from the District’s leaders is shameful.”
At 9:48 PM tonight, DBH reported the water tested clear and should be fully restored this evening. But this is not the first time the District has made assertions about fixing the problem that have turned out to be overly optimistic.
Contrary to assurances that patients’ needs were being fully met despite the water shutdown, all plaintiffs reported drastic cuts to essential treatments and services. Patients’ regular individual and group therapy sessions have been severely curtailed or cut completely; Narcotics Anonymous meetings have been cancelled; and dentistry and podiatry services have halted. The “Treatment Mall,” where patients go for exercise, music and art therapy, classes, and other activities, is closed. Meanwhile, new patients are still being admitted to the hospital.
“The District subjected some of its most vulnerable residents to appalling conditions, depriving them of basic human needs and jeopardizing their health, safety, and recovery,” said Monica Hopkins, Executive Director, ACLU of the District of Columbia. “The patients at St. Elizabeths, like so many with mental health needs, have been out-of-sight and out-of-mind for too long. The hospital should be providing psychiatric care and treatment, but is instead risking patients’ mental and physical health with a wait-and-see game. It is now critical for the court to intervene to ensure this kind of thing never happens again.”
According to the lawsuit, several days passed after the water was shut off before portable toilets were brought to the hospital. In the interim, according to two plaintiffs, the indoor toilets stopped working and staff were manually flushing the toilets only once or twice a day. In some units, groups of more than two dozen individuals shared a single toilet. The foul smell “makes me want to vomit,” said plaintiff William Dunbar.
The portable showers are not compliant with the American with Disabilities Act, are unsanitary, and the water supplying them is unreliable and sometimes cold. In the days patients are not allowed to shower, they are given body wipes or a bucket of soapy water and a washcloth. Enzo Costa, the lead plaintiff, refuses to clean himself this way, noting “that is like washing a dog or a car.”
“We are deeply concerned that Mayor Bowser has not publicly commented on the dire situation that St. Elizabeths’ patients are experiencing. There has not been a consistent, or effective, strategy for remediation of the water problem that will guarantee that this problem will not recur,” says John Freedman, partner at Arnold & Porter.
The case filed today, Costa v. Bazron, seeks a court order requiring the District to sanitize the facility, to restore all services, and to assess the needs of patients as a result of this crisis and implement all necessary treatment. The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. You can view a copy of the complaint here.
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ABOUT THE WASHINGTON LAWYERS’ COMMITTEE: Founded in 1968, The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs works to create legal, economic and social equity through litigation, client and public education and public policy advocacy. While we fight discrimination against all people, we recognize the central role that current and historic race discrimination plays in sustaining inequity and recognize the critical importance of identifying, exposing, combatting and dismantling the systems that sustain racial oppression. For more information, please visit www.washlaw.org or call 202.319.1000. Follow us on Twitter at @WashLaw4CR.
ABOUT THE ACLU OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: With more than 14,000 local members, the ACLU of the District of Columbia fights to protect and expand civil liberties and civil rights for people who live, work, and visit D.C., and in matters involving federal employees and agencies. ACLU-DC pursues its mission through legal action, legislative advocacy, and public education.
ABOUT ARNOLD & PORTER: With more than 1,000 lawyers practicing in 15 offices around the globe, Arnold & Porter serves clients across 40 distinct practice areas. The firm offers 100 years of renowned regulatory expertise, sophisticated litigation and transactional practices, and leading multidisciplinary offerings in the life sciences and financial services industries.
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