By AFRO Staff

St. Elizabeth’s Hospital reported its water clean and clear of bacteria in the late evening of October 23. The psychiatric hospital expected water service to resume the same night.

However, 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.

An October 23 joint press release described conditions in the hospital during the water outage as “horrifying.”

(Courtesy Image)

““I can’t overstate how egregious the conditions are at the hospital,” said Margaret Hart, Counsel at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, via the same press release. “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.”

Plaintiffs state in the complaint that essential medical and humanitarian services were cut or curtailed during the water crisis. The patients lost access to podiatry, dentistry, Narcotics anonymous meetings and a space that provided exercise, music and art therapy and classes was closed, the complaint says.

“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, in the release. “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.”

The complaint goes to say that as many as two dozen patients had to share the same toilet, leading to increasing unsanitary and distressing conditions on the hospital grounds. When St. Elizabeth’s later provided portable toilet and shower facilities, these were found to be non-compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Water availability and temperature could not be relied upon, leading to further unsanitary conditions, the complaint says.

When water supplies reached their limit, patients were given buckets of soapy water and washcloth with which to bathe, the complaint says.

““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, in the release.

The complaint, Costa v. Bazron, can be read in its entirety here.

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.