SEATTLE — One by one, more than a dozen parents and other family members choked back tears Monday as they urged lawmakers to pass a bill to remove what they say are roadblocks to getting treatment for mentally ill people in crisis.
"Joel's Law" will save lives, they testified, by allowing family members to ask a judge to review cases whenever a designated mental health professional decides against detaining someone who could be a danger to themselves or others.
The measure was named for Joel Reuter, who was suicidal when he was fatally shot by Seattle police in 2013. His parents, Doug and Nancy Reuter, told the Senate Committee on Human Services, Mental Health and Housing that they repeatedly tried to get the state to step in and force their son into treatment but repeatedly were turned away, with disastrous results.
"His illness turned him into a paranoid stranger, causing him to say things he would never say in his right mind," Nancy Reuter said of her son.
She and her husband made calls to the Department of Social and Health Services seeking help, but the designated mental health professionals who reviewed the case, "would say Joel is not dangerous enough" to be committed, she said.
Doug Reuter said those state professionals "are out of control. They answer to nobody. They unilaterally decide who gets help." Having a judge weigh in on those decisions would save lives, he said.
Sen. Steve O'Ban, a Pierce County Republican who chairs the committee, said he sponsored Senate Bill 5269 because families know best when someone they love needs to be involuntarily committed. Under the bill, if a mental health profession does not detain someone, family members can petition the Superior Court for review.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the public defender's office testified against the bill. They said the problem lies with a lack of state funding for mental health issues, not with the involuntary commitment process.
"Olympia should focus on solving mental health issues on the front end by restoring funding for outpatient treatment for people in the community," said Michael De Felice, a criminal defense lawyer who supervises the public defense team at the Harborview Civil Commitment Court. The court has seen a 60 percent increase in cases in recent years, which shows that people actually are being committed, he said. The problem is not with detaining people, it's treating them so they don't need to be detained in the first place, he said.
Like the Reuters, Gretchen Allen said she tried and failed to get help for her son, Kirk. He was taken to an emergency room a half-dozen times but "told to go home, rest and heal," she said. Without getting proper treatment, Kirk took his own life, she said.
Mary Jane Thomas testified that she ended up taking her son to California to get treatment. Since he had been unable to get help in a timely manner, he was acute and had to be institutionalized for six months.
Shankar Narayan, with the ACLU, said he is sympathetic with the families, but the bill is not the answer.
"Our dollars are better-spend upstream," he said. "We have failed to fund pre- or post-commitment treatment. Until we invest into the community-based treatment systems, we should not send more people into a system where they will not get treatment."
Following the hearing on the "Joel's Law" bill, the committee heard testimony on another O'Ban bill. Senate Bill 5078 would require that 22 percent of funds from the marijuana excise tax be used for community treatment for people with mental illnesses.
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