LAPEER, Mich. — Carrie Sparks was sitting in the front seat of her car, just steps away from the emergency room of McLaren Hospital in Lapeer, Michigan.
For the last 18 days, she'd been practically living inside the hospital ER with her 12-year-old son, Casey, who suffers from developmental disabilities and mood disorders.
Casey was being held there, sometimes in five-point restraints, because the only state-run hospital for children didn't have room to treat him.
"If my child came in here with a broken foot, they wouldn't make him sit 18 days before he was treated," she said into her cell phone as she recorded a video journal to document the wait. "But because of the way our state is handling mental health and special needs mental health, this is where we're at."
Sparks and her wife adopted Casey eight years ago. Since birth, he's had the deck stacked against him. He was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and today suffers from a whole host of mood disorders and intellectual disabilities that affect every second of his life.
"When he gets upset, he calls them tornadoes in his brain," Sparks said. "That's how he describes it, and he can't stop them, so he's trying to find ways to stop them."
Sparks had been waiting at McLaren ER since June 10 after her son attempted suicide.
"He was darting out … he was running towards the road to try to run in front of cars, he's like, 'I'm just going to jump in front of them and they can hit me,'" she said.
When she brought him to McLaren Hospital, no one doubted that Casey needed help immediately. There was just no help to give him.
McLaren is not a psychiatric hospital, and all the private psych facilities in the state said they were already full or said that Casey was too severe to be treated.
"His acuity's too high, they don't have enough personnel to handle his special needs," Sparks said. "Because he's special needs, he's being singled out and declined for help."
So instead of receiving treatment, Casey was essentially held at McLaren, where staff tried to keep him safe.
"We've had some really rough days where unfortunately he's had to be in restraints the majority of the day with small breaks in between because he was just not safe at all," Sparks said.
For Casey and dozens of other children who have been turned away, the last and sometimes only hope is the Hawthorn Center in Northville. It's the only state-run psychiatric hospital in Michigan and, even though demand for treatment there is enormous, funding is not.
While Hawthorn is big enough to treat up to 118 kids, it's funded to treat just 55, and today is treating just 46.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which runs Hawthorn, refused an interview for this story.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declined as well, saying through a spokesperson that there was not enough time in her schedule. Scripps station WXYZ in Detroit has renewed its request to speak with her about the psychiatric bed crisis.
State Rep. Mary Whiteford is a Republican from St. Clair County who says that now is the time to rebuild Hawthorn, taking it from treating about 50 kids to 100.
"I toured Hawthorn Center a few years ago," Whiteford said. "They only use about 50% of the building. It's in bad shape."
She's proposing that the state use some of the federal COVID-19 relief funds to double the number of children being served today.
"This is a big issue, and that's why I really appreciate that you brought it up," she said. "People don't care until they care. Until they're actually faced with the gut-wrenching feeling of being a parent, not getting the help that they know their child needs, they don't know."
Kyle Williams is the legal director for Disability Rights Michigan, a non-profit group that fights for the rights of children like Casey. He says that while there clearly aren't enough child beds today, the problem is bigger than just adding more beds.
"More psych beds doesn't solve our problem if it's not coupled with home and community-based services," he said.
His organization recently sued the state on behalf of seven families whose children fell into crisis after approved in-home psychiatric treatment never came.
Williams says that if the state can't help children like Casey on the front end, there will never be enough beds to treat them when they're in crisis.
"We can judge our success in Michigan with our community mental health program by minimizing the amount of kids and adults that need to be in psychiatric care," he said.
But until community-based mental health services are enough to keep children like Casey well, his mom says there at least need to be available beds when children like her son could harm themselves or others.
After 21 days of waiting for a bed to open up at Hawthorn, 12-year-old Casey was admitted Thursday morning.
"All you want to do is help him," Sparks said. "And we're in a situation where all we feel is helpless."
Thursday afternoon, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services released a statement that reads in part:
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) recognizes that behavioral health services are essential to maximize the overall health and success of children and their families. The department sympathizes with families in Michigan and around the country who are struggling to secure medically necessary community based services. Therefore, MDHHS is prioritizing efforts to improve access to intense home- and community-based behavioral health services for children and their families. This includes a priority focus to expand mobile crisis intervention and stabilization services to prevent hospitalizations, emergency room visits or other residential placements. MDHHS is developing a website to be transparent with priorities, progress and accountability of behavioral health services provided to children.
The Governor's Executive Budget included $91 million gross, $30 million General Fund for estimated costs to implement policy changes to improve and expand children's access to behavioral health services, targeting children enrolled in Medicaid and those served through the child welfare system.
The capacity of community hospitals to provide inpatient psychiatric care is dependent on the availability of beds, but a bed can only be available if it is adequately staffed. Inpatient psychiatric units may be limited in their ability to admit additional children and youth based on the availability of staff in the psychiatric unit. Some children and youth also have complex health needs that may require specialized staffing to provide safe and effective care, which includes children and youth with autism, intellectual/developmental disabilities and other conditions. Bed capacity at community hospitals has also shifted due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the related limitations on health care staffing.
This story was originally published by Ross Jones on Scripps station WXYZ in Detroit.