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Families to lawmakers: Make it easier to detain mentally ill

SEATTLE — When Joel Reuter lived in Arizona and suffered from several psychotic episodes, his father said he was civilly committed, received treatment and got better. But when he moved to Washington and began threatening his friends and acting erratically, the law did not allow his detention. As a result, Doug Reuter says, his son shot at police from his balcony in 2013 and was killed when they returned fire.

Doug Reuter wants lawmakers to change the state's civil commitment law to include people with "persistent or acute disabilities," not just mentally ill people in the middle of a crisis. Lowering the threshold for civil commitments will get people treated sooner and House Bill 1451 aims to do that, he said.

"You have to literally get to the point where they're going to kill themselves or someone else to get them into help," Doug Reuter said in an interview after testifying at a House committee hearing. "If you did that with cancer - waited until you hit Stage 4 before getting any treatment - the chances of saving you would be remote."

The bill is one of a half dozen measures being considered during the 2015 Legislative session that make changes to the Involuntary Treatment Act - the law that allows officials to hold someone against their will if they are a danger to themselves or others. But people working in the civil commitment system oppose attempts to change the law without first adding funds to the state's mental health programs.

A report by Mental Health America that ranked states based on whether mentally ill people had access to care placed Washington 48th.

The lawyers working on these cases say the civil commitment court, held at Harborview Medical Center, is already overcrowded and caseworkers are overworked. The high volume shows that people are, in fact, being detained, they say.

"I'm shocked that they're even trying to add new grounds for detention," said Mike De Felice, supervisor of the court's public defense team. "Adding new people to a system that's already overwhelmed and underfunded will compound existing problems."

The civil commitment court has seen a 58 percent increase in cases since 2008, he said. Hearings used to be held in one large courtroom, but as the caseloads increased, a small waiting room was turned into a second courtroom.

Jim Vollendroff, head of King County mental health services, said he oversees 30 mental health professionals who do evaluations and decide when someone should be detained.

"We would need to add new staff" if the bill passed, he said. Vollendoroff said he told lawmakers: "Give us the resources for proper placement and give us the resources to hire more DMHP staff, and we are on board."

Under existing law, people who pose a threat to themselves or others or are gravely disabled can be held for up to 72 hours. If a professional believes the person should be held longer, a judge can order another 14 days. A 90-day extension requires another court appearance.

Besides failing to capture Joel Reuter, the law failed to help Chris Henderson, Gary Kennison told the House Judiciary Committee. Henderson had threatened suicide and made threats against his wife, Sheena Henderson, also Kennison's daughter, but "he did not meet the criteria for commitment and they let him go," Kennison said. Chris Henderson killed his wife in July while she was at work at Deaconess Hospital in Spokane before fatally shooting himself.

Kennison and Reuter testified in favor of HB 1451, modeled after Arizona's law. It would expand civil commitment to include a person who has a "persistent or acute disability," which is defined as a mental disorder that causes the person to suffer "severe and abnormal mental, emotional or physical harm that significantly impairs judgment, reason, behavior or capacity to recognize reality."

The measure being considered by the House Judiciary Committee. Its chairwoman, Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, has been hosting hearings on a package of bills that target the state's civil commitment law. Another measure, House Bill 1258, entitled "Joel's Law," after Joel Reuter, would allow families and others to petition a judge for review if a designated mental health professional declines to detain a person. It has passed in the House and moved to the Senate on Feb. 2. Other bills would allow a less-restrictive option to hospitalization and require timely evaluations for people in crisis.

Jinkins said Washington's mental health system is broken, and the 2015 session is an opportunity to make improvements.


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