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Michigan kids in mental crisis still wait weeks in ERs. Lansing's in no rush to stop it.

More psych beds could be years away as children keep stacking up
Posted at 3:56 PM, Jan 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-20 19:35:26-05

(WXYZ) — For 23 days, 7-year-old Manny Griffith has languished in a small room just off the ER at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit.

Toys are not allowed over concerns he could use them as a weapon. He wears a hospital gown, but receives no treatment.

And he is not allowed to leave.

“He has pretty much spent those … days in jail,” said his mother Jenny.

Manny was brought here after a series of violent outbursts and mood swings. His birth mother drank heavily during his pregnancy, and today Manny suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome.

His parents Jenny and Rob have been in his life since he was 8-months-old and formally adopted him when he turned three.

For years, his mother resisted bringing Manny to a hospital, relying instead on family and what little community supports she could access.

“We have been fighting and fighting and fighting to try and get him to stay out of the hospitals,” she said this month.

She never imagined that when she’d finally ask a hospital to treat him, Manny would be turned away.

“He’s too much and not enough,” Jenny said, referencing why hospitals have declined admitting her son. “He’s too many behaviors, too much need, he needs too many reminders. But he also doesn’t have a cognitive impairment and doesn’t have autism.”

Through the years, Manny has made holes in walls, knocked doors off their hinges, gave his little cousin stitches and attacked his two younger brothers.

“When we got here, it took seven security guards to restrain him to the bed,” Jenny said through tears. “That broke my heart. I don’t want that to happen to him, but at the same time it was such a relief that there were the people in place that could keep him safe.”

Staff could keep him safe, but that was about it.

Children’s Hospital isn’t equipped to treat Manny, and psychiatric hospitals in the state that could declined him. 7 Action News spoke with the Griffiths outside Children’s Hospital on their 16th day of waiting.

“He sees ... this is a punishment for him being bad,” said his father Rob, “which wouldn’t be further from the truth.”

Their story is hardly unique.

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When Nicole Knight’s son attacked her, she rushed him to Providence Hospital in Southfield. Her son suffers from autism, PTSD, depression and anxiety, and when we caught up with her, they’d been waiting there for 29 days.

This was her fourth time waiting in excess of three weeks for a bed. This visit, like the others, was prompted by a violent outburst.

“He slammed me into the door and then he pulled his fist back and was going to punch me in the face,” Nicole said, “and that’s when my older son came in.”

Ultimately, Nicole’s son would be admitted to the Hawthorn Center—the only state-run psychiatric hospital for children—after a 33 day wait.

“I’m giving up my whole life to sit here with him, knowing the purpose is just to wait,” she said.

7 Action News asked repeatedly to talk to Governor Whitmer about the shortage of psychiatric beds for children, but her office ignored our requests.

We caught up with her just before the holidays as she handed out turkeys.

“What is your plan today to make sure that children do not have to wait 33 days like this family just did?” asked Channel 7’s Ross Jones.

“Well, it’s heartbreaking and I know that there are a lot of parents who’ve tried to navigate the system that doesn’t have enough opportunities for kids,” Whitmer said. “That’s why I’ve proposed putting $300 million into mental healthcare for young people in particular.”

Her plan calls for a $325 million investment to rebuild the Hawthorn Center along with another aging psychiatric hospital, but it is not guaranteed that the facility would serve more children than it does today.

The Hawthorn Center is funded to treat just 55 kids at a time—even though it’s big enough to treat twice as many kids, and has a waiting list year-round.

Whitmer is also asking for $77 million to help increase the number of direct care workers immediately to care for more youth in state psychiatric facilities and another $335 million to bolster crisis supports and community-based wrap-around health services.

Rep. Mary Whiteford, a Republican from St. Clair County, has pushed unsuccessfully—to add more beds to Hawthorn. She too wants to rebuild the aging hospital.

“If I had my way, I would make it bigger,” Whiteford said. "Make sure that we’re addressing the needs of our children and get it going as soon as possible. Now is too late, but we have to start with something.”

Last week, the Griffiths got their first piece of good news. The Hawthorn Center will accept Manny; they just don’t know when they’ll have room. Today, their 7-year-old son is still waiting in an 8 by 10 hospital room, in the midst of a crisis no one is troubled enough to fix.

“I’m angry,” said his mother through tears. “Because people high up that I can’t contact have control over my son’s future, and they’re not doing anything about it.”

Editor’s note: Thursday, Manny was finally accepted for treatment at Hawthorn Center in Northville. After waiting more than three weeks, his mental health treatment can finally begin. 

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at ross.jones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.