DETROIT, Mich. — Cyndi Jensen needed help. Her 16-year-old daughter Elli, non-verbal and diagnosed with autism, was screaming in pain.
“I don’t mean a little scream,” Jensen recalled “I mean horror movie, shattering glass, blood curdling screams that just pierce your ears.”
The mother of four children, each diagnosed with autism, has gone through this more times than she can count. Usually, she can say the right thing to calm her daughter down and avoid a trip to the ER, but this episode was severe.
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On bad days, Elli can become violent. She has broken nine windows and, just a few weeks earlier, a mirror in school. It led to 11 stitches.
In April, after Elli attacked her mom and then her sister, Cyndi knew she couldn’t avoid the ER any longer.
But after arriving at the emergency room at Children’s Hospital in Detroit, Jensen did not feel relief knowing that her daughter’s pain would soon subside.
“We’ve been through this several times,” she said, “and each time I’m still stunned that it hasn’t gotten any better.”
While Children’s Hospital of Michigan could hold Elli, they had no psychiatric beds available to treat her. In fact, there were none available in the county, the tri-county or the entire state.
“You can’t just tell a family we have no hope for you and no help for you,” Jensen said.
But hospital after hospital did. From Stonecrest Hospital in Detroit to Havenwyck Hospital in Auburn Hills to Pine Rest in Grand Rapids to the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor.
Hospitals across the state said they were either already full or simply couldn’t treat a child with Elli’s diagnoses.
“To me, it’s a type of discrimination,” Jensen said. “We can’t help you because you have too many needs for us.”
The wait would last 23 days before a bed at Harbor Oaks Hospital in Macomb County opened up.
Scenes like this have been going on for years. 7 Action News first reported on the process, called psychiatric boarding, in 2015. It became common years before that, according to Tom Watkins, the former CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.
“What’s transpiring today is tragic, sad, and predictable,” Watkins said.
Since 2016, the number of licensed psychiatric beds for children in Michigan has always hovered in the same range, between 260 and 290. Hawthorn Center, the one state hospital for kids, has the same number of beds today as when we did our very first story six years ago.
“The question is, are we willing to put time, energy, muscle, dollars behind meeting this need?” Watkins said.
State Sen. Jeff Irwin says more beds alone won’t solve this problem, but it can’t be solved without them.
“Our mental health crisis beds were frozen in time decades ago when our state has grown and our need has grown,” Irwin said. “I think it’s unconscionable.”
Through the years, the state has convened work groups and held hearings, studying why it happens, like it did in 2018, and making recommendations. Three years later, we’re still in the same place: too many sick kids, not enough beds.
“The hospital systems are not seeing enough profit in this area to go out there and build these facilities in the for-profit system, and on the public side, we’ve been cutting holes and cutting holes in our social safety net, people are falling through,” Irwin said.
It should not take weeks for a child in crisis to find help, but t it did. Elli’s mom knows that unless something changes, the next time she’s in crisis, it will again.
“That’s just so heart-wrenching,” Jensen said. “To see your child struggling in pain and know that you can’t do anything to help them.”
Today, Elli continues to receive treatment at Harbor Oaks. But after her mom returned home after visiting her daughter for most of her 23-day wait, she returned home with COVID-19.
Today, she and her family are recovering at home.