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Maryland family waits weeks in the ER for juvenile psychiatric bed

Posted at 11:37 PM, Dec 13, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-13 23:37:54-05

Christina Zukor’s recent visit to Harford Memorial Hospital was after her 14-year-old daughter tried jumping out of a moving car.

“One exit on 95 from Aberdeen to Havre de Grace and she all of a sudden was like, ‘I'm getting out of the car,’” said Zukor, Elya’s mom. “I had to grab her by the zipper of her sweatshirt to keep her in the car and I pulled over on the shoulder. Thank god I was in the right lane. And we got home, and I just sobbed and it was just this relief at first, thank god we're safe. And secondly, just this release of emotion that I now know that I cannot do this myself.”

Zukor adopted Elya from Russia when she was 4-years-old. She knew Elya had special needs and she was later diagnosed with intellectual disability, specific learning disabilities in reading and math, and emotional disability.

“She's a ninth grader who functions around kindergarten to the beginning of 2nd grade academically,” said Zukor.

Elya can't always control her impulses and the last year and a half, Zukor has worked hard to keep her daughter safe, even spending nights on the couch listening for Elya attempting to sneak off to the highway.

The most recent attempt wasn't her first, and it also wasn't her first time in the emergency department. It was, however, the Zukor's first time waiting three weeks for a psychiatric inpatient bed.

“The wait for some kids is a day or two, the wait for us was three weeks,” said Zukor.

Because of her intellectual disability, Elya must go to the Child and Adolescent Neuropsychiatric Unit at Sheppard Pratt, but to do so, there needs to be an available bed.

“So, it's such a specific need. This neurobehavioral psych unit at Sheppard Pratt is it for her and they have 14 beds,” Zukor said.

Aside from their limited capacity, finding a more permanent solution has been an even greater challenge. Residential treatment facilities have turned away Zukor's daughter because of her low IQ. Few are staffed and equipped to provide that kind of specialized care. 

Even outside of Elya’s specific needs, residential psychiatric centers for all juveniles in the state is shrinking.

“Three Maryland residential treatment centers closed over the period of about six months, which was last year,” said Ann Geddes, director of public policy for Maryland Coalition of Families.

Geddes said their closings reduced the bed capacity by one-third.

“This is a huge problem for juveniles, you could argue that it's greater for juveniles. Just about every hospital in the state has an in-patient psych unit for adults but only a handful have inpatient psychiatric units for kids,” Geddes said.

There's a term for these kids, “stuck kids.” They get stuck in the ER and stuck in a cycle of short-term placements with no long-term resolution.

Geddes says there needs to be crisis prevention and intervention and better community-based services if we want to keep kids from being hospitalized, but for now, that's some parents only option.

“I’m always going to be her mom, I just can’t provide what she needs in the home,” said Zukor.

Zukor was able to find a suitable residential school for her daughter. It's on the eastern shore and has a pool. Elya was on the Special Olympics Maryland swim team.

Zukor's hopeful that she'll do well there, but she's been told that they won't have a female bed opening until July.

Kids with mental and behavioral health issues waiting in emergency rooms is a crisis across the country. To see more of our in-depth coverage on this problem, click here: "Kids with mental illness forced to wait for care"