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NAMI Asks Attorney General Reno For Investigation Of State Of Florida's Mental Health Treatment Of Children & Adolescents

 Request Follows Death of 12-Year Old Boy In Wilderness Camp

For Immediate Release, March 3, 2000
Contacts: Bob Carolla or Anne-Marie Chace 703-524-7600


Arlington, VA-The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) has requested an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into Florida's treatment of children with serious brain disorders, following the February 5th death of 12-year-old boy with mental illness at a wilderness camp for juvenile offenders.

Last week, a Florida grand jury absolved of any wrong-doing a 320-pound counselor who restrained Michael Wiltsie-who weighed only 65 pounds-saying that the counselor had "followed the procedure he had been taught." However, the grand jury criticized Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice for placing the boy at the camp rather than in a mental health facility as a medical professional recommended in November 1999. Wiltsie also was forced to stop taking his psychiatric medication to comply with the privately run camp's policy.

"The tragedy illustrates widespread, systemic problems in the way Florida responds to the needs of children with mental illnesses," NAMI executive director Laurie Flynn declared in a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno. "Michael Wiltsie's death is more than death due to restraints. It is a treatment denied death, representing a failure of Florida's mental health system. Florida's mental health program, not the juvenile justice system, should have been providing care for this child."

Citing the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel's November 1999 investigative series, "Throwaway Kids," Flynn called the Wiltsie case "part of a pattern of inadequate treatment and gross violations of the civil rights of children and adolescents with mental illnesses under the care of the state." Florida's practices, she said, "also seem to disregard the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year in L.C. v. Olmstead, holding that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires states to provide services to adults and children with disabilities in the setting most appropriate to their needs."


March 3, 2000

The Honorable Janet Reno
Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
Room 5244
950 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C. 20530

Dear Madame Attorney General

On behalf of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), I wish to request an investigation into the State of Florida's treatment of children with serious mental illness, based on the recent case of Michael Wiltsie, a 12 year-old boy, who died on February 5 after being restrained at Camp E-Kel-etu, a wilderness facility operated by Eckherd Youth Alternatives.

NAMI believes the tragedy illustrates widespread, systemic problems in the way Florida responds to the needs of children with serious brain disorders. Last week, a Marion County grand jury absolved the camp counselor who restrained Michael Wiltsie of any wrongdoing, saying that he "followed the procedure he had been taught," but criticized Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice for placing the boy at the camp rather than a mental health facility, as apparently was recommended by a medical professional in November 1999.

Florida's Lack of An Adequate Treatment System for Children

Michael Wiltsie's death is more than a death due to restraint. More broadly and accurately, it is a treatment denied death, representing a failure of Florida's overall treatment system for mental illness. The Florida mental health program, not the juvenile justice system, should have been providing care for this child. Considered within the context of the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel's November 1999 investigative series, "Throwaway Kids," the case is part of a pattern of inadequate treatment and gross violations of the civil rights of children and adolescents with mental illnesses under the care of the state. Florida's practices with regard to children and adolescents also seem to disregard the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year in L.C. v. Olmstead, holding that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires states to provide services to adults and children with disabilities in the setting most appropriate to their needs.

Specifically, NAMI raises for consideration:

  • When Michael Wiltsie was sent to Camp E-Kel-etu, he was forced to stop taking his psychiatric medication, because as a matter of policy, the camp apparently does not accept children on medication. This is a violation of generally accepted professional clinical protocols and should clearly demonstrate that the camp is not a facility for the treatment of mental illness.

  • In November 1999, a medical professional recommended that Michael Wiltsie be placed in a mental health facility to be treated for his illness. Instead, he was sent to a facility for juvenile offenders.

  • Even if placement had been to a treatment facility for mental illness, Michael Wiltsie still may not have received adequate and appropriate care. The Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported 55 instances of abuse documented over the last three years in Florida residential treatment centers; that children often are sent to such facilities too frequently and for inappropriate lengths of time; and that the state's lack of therapeutic treatment standards prevents measurement of the effectiveness of treatment. The series also reported deaths from restraints and noted that Florida regulations for residential treatment facilities allow for the use of restraints only to prevent youth from injuring themselves or others, but "oversight is minimal."

The St. Petersburg Times reports that Florida's Secretary of Juvenile Justice has asserted that Camp E-Kel-etu is a mental health facility because the state's contract with Eckerd Youth Alternatives provides for mental health services. Mental health problems, however, are not the same as mental illness: a distinction which the recent U.S. Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health explicitly has recognized. The State of Florida failed to recognize the distinction in this case and failed in its responsibility to provide adequate and appropriate treatment for Michael Wiltsie's illness.

As part of an official investigation, NAMI would like to know:

  • Why is there no apparent system in Florida for the treatment of children with mental illnesses? Where was the Florida Department of Families & Children and its Mental Health office in managing the Wiltsie case?
  • Who was responsible for the boy's placement at Camp E-Kel-etu?
  • Who ordered termination of his medication?
  • Who is responsible for his death?

I cannot emphasize enough the sadness and outrage among NAMI members in response to Michael Wiltsie's death. In a mental health system that is deeply flawed to begin with-in which individual tragedies are commonplace-this tragedy has touched a deep and troubling nerve. Please act swiftly to protect the rights and lives of all the other Michael Wiltsies inside Florida's system.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Laurie Flynn
Executive Director

Enclosures

  • Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel series
  • St. Petersburg Times reports

 


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