New deadline for mental-health evaluations

By | March 12, 2015 | 0 Comments

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Washington jails and hospitals now will have a deadline of two weeks to complete mental health evaluations under a bill Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law Thursday.

“Defendants do have the right to understand the proceedings against them and to participate in their own defense,” he said. “We all know we now need to turn to the important task of making sure this bill and these provisions are funded adequately.”

In a class-action lawsuit filed against the state, people charged with crimes say they were forced to wait an unconstitutional amount of time before receiving mental health evaluations for competency to stand trial, sometimes weeks or months.

Hospitals, under Senate Bill 5889, will have 14 days to offer admission to a defendant for inpatient competency evaluations. Jails must also complete evaluations within that time frame, with an option to extend another seven days for clinical reasons.

The new time limit will be phased in throughout a period of one year beginning July 1. If a jail or hospital exceeds a time limit, it will have to submit a report to the Legislature and governor’s office, and the defendant could use the missed deadline as a defense in court.

A shortage of psychiatric beds and staff contributed to the long wait times, mental health officials say. Lawmakers last month passed a supplemental budget with more than $20 million toward the state’s mental health system, including adding 45 beds to the Western State Hospital mental health wards.

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Senate hearing focuses on bullying, emotional health in schools

By | February 5, 2015 | 0 Comments

The emotional well-being of Washington students was the focus of a state Senate hearing Thursday, as lawmakers heard bills to prevent bullying and promote social skills.

Senate Bill 5526 would address bullying of transgender students in state schools, requiring districts to adopt a policy to prevent harassment and train more educators to help when it occurs.

Transgender students regularly face physical and verbal abuse at school, Sen. Marko Liias, Mukilteo Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill, told committee members.

More than 80 percent of transgender students report verbal abuse, he says, 40 percent report physical abuse. Forty percent of transgender young people attempt suicide before age 20, he said.

“We know that there are harmful consequences for kids in our schools,” Liias said. “It’s our obligation to take every step we can to provide a safe, supportive learning environment.”

Another bill considered by the committee aims to teach students how to better recognize emotions, manage stress and resolve conflicts.

It’s called social emotional learning and “it is not sitting around and singing songs,” Melanie Smith of Seattle-based Committee for Children told lawmakers. “It is building blocks of how we learn to interact with people, how we communicate with people and how we resolve conflicts with people. It’s how to pay attention and how to learn.”

Senate Bill 5688 would require the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the body that sets Washington’s learning standards, to study benchmarks for teaching students the skills. An OSPI work group would have until Oct. 1, 2016 to submit a plan to lawmakers for implementing social emotional learning-based curriculum for state schools.

Both bills were heard Thursday in the Senate early learning and K-12 committee. Neither has been schedule for a committee vote.

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Joel’s Law passes unanimously in the House

By | January 29, 2015 | 0 Comments

For Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, the issue of dealing with a mentally ill loved one is personal. Last month, his son, who has dealt with mental illness for years, took a family car and gun and ended up surrounded by police.

Joel Reuter

He told his story in support of Joel’s Law, which enables families to petition courts to review a designated mental health professional’s decision not to detain a person with mental illness.

Dent’s son was hospitalized for several weeks after the incident, but the hospital released him over the family’s objections. Dent’s son then stole the family’s car again, and was arrested.

“He is still in the Grant County jail. We are still struggling to find him psychiatric help. He still needs help. By the grace of God these people didn’t kill my son. I’m grateful for that,” Dent said, urging members to pass the bill. “This is a great thing; it will do good things. I know it will save lives. It will save families.”

The bill was named after Joel Reuter, a Seattle man killed in a shootout with police in 2013.

Bill sponsor Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, D-Seattle, said Reuter’s friends and family lobbied for the changes in the past two sessions, after their efforts failed to get Reuter the help he needed.

“Friends and family tried 48 times to admit Joel to seek mental health treatment and evaluation. And every time they tried they couldn’t get coverage for their son, who in the course of the last seven months of his life tried many times, threatening to kill others and cause personal injury to himself,” he said.

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Jay Rodne, R-Snohomish, said the current law needs to be changed.

“No just society, no humane society disregards its most vulnerable citizens under a perverted sense of civil liberties to the point where they devolve and lose their lives. No just society, no humane society views this issue purely through a prism of an Excel spreadsheet and cost-benefit analysis without a full accounting for the human cost and the human tragedy that this policy inflicts on families,” Rodne said.

Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, said there is strong bipartisan support this year for Joel’s Law and other bills to change mental health policy, because of the lobbying from all over the state by people and families affected by mental illness — as well as recent lawsuits that have forced the state’s hand.

“We are 48th in the nation in access to mental health vs. need. We are number one in teen suicides,” she said. “These are not numbers we are proud of.”

House Bill 1258 passed 98-0 and now heads to the Senate for consideration.

Sheena’s Law, other mental health bills get hearing in House committee

By | January 28, 2015 | 0 Comments

Kristen Otoupalik of Spokane said if her friend Christopher Henderson‘s suicide threat history could have been recorded by mental health professionals and police, courts might have been able to force him into getting help before he fatally shot his wife, Sheena Henderson, and himself last year.

“How much would you pay, how many papers would you write and how much time would you invest to save the life of your loved one,” Otoupalik said. “Better yet, how many of you would like to trade places with me, and lose your loved ones because there wasn’t a strong enough paper trail, or we were not able to make changes, no matter how minimal, in our state?”

Kristen Otoupalik (left), Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, and Gary Kennison drop Sheena's Law, named after Kennison's daughter. Photo courtesy Rep. Riccelli's office.

Otoupalik spoke at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, which reviewed four mental health bills which would add new standards to commit someone into mental health treatment and give the court alternatives to long-term hospitalization.

Otoupalik and Sheena Henderson’s father, Gary Kennison, both spoke in favor of House Bill 1448, Sheena’a Law, which Kennison requested to be renamed Sheena and Chris Henderson’s Law. The bill would allow officers responding to a threat of suicide to refer the person to a designated mental health professional. That mental health professional can determine whether the person needs more intensive intervention, including involuntary commitment.

Christopher Henderson had been taken to a hospital after a suicide threat, but the family was left with few options when he was released to them after three hours, Kennison said.

“There was no follow up to see if any care was given,” Kennison said. “Not one person called to see if they could help him get mental health (treatment).”

However, James McMahan, policy director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said the bill would force people into the mental health system in cases where police determine that the person is not a danger.

“We don’t think that the right solution is to put the lowest risk people in an already bogged down system,” McMahan said.

However, the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs testified in favor of the bill.

Other bills reviewed were:

  • HB 1287 – Allows the courts to order year-long outpatient mental health treatment as an alternative to inpatient commitment.
  • HB 1450 – Allows a person who meets the definition of “in need of assisted outpatient treatment” to be ordered into involuntary mental health treatment.
  • HB 1451 – Adds “persistent or acute disability” as one of the standards that would allow for court-ordered involuntary mental health treatment.

Len McComb, lobbyist of the Washington State Hospital Association, warned that the state needs to back up any changes with funding to keep services and beds available.

“We don’t have a mental health system in this state. We have pieces of a mental health system that is broken,” he said, testifying on HB 1451. “Be careful what you wish for.”

“Simply changing the standards and changing the law and not changing the system will not change things a bit,” he said.

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Family members say Joel’s Law could have saved murdered Spokane woman

By | January 19, 2015 | 0 Comments

If the Washington State Legislature passes “Joel’s Law” this year  — a bill that offers a way for families to appeal to the courts if their family members have been denied involuntary mental health commitment  — it comes too late for the friends and family of Sheena Henderson of Spokane.

Sheena Henderson’s father, Gary Kennison, said the law might have been able to prevent his son-in-law, Chris Henderson, from coming to  his wife’s place of work, where he fatally shot her and killed himself last July.

“We now have two children who are growing up without parents. Christopher, who committed this act, wasn’t a bad person,” Kennison said in a Monday morning hearing in the Senate Human Services, Mental Health & Housing committee.

Chris Henderson’s mental condition had been deteriorating in the months before the shooting, and he had been briefly hospitalized and his guns confiscated. But he was released from the hospital days before the shooting after assuring authorities he was no danger, and he collected his gun from the Spokane Police Department the day before the fatal shooting.

“There was no avenue whatsoever for us to go back and appeal that decision…. So I believe that Joel’s Law, had it been in place, it would have given me a tool to protect my daughter and she would have been here today,” Kennison said.

“Joel’s Law,” which is filed this year under Senate Bill 5269 and House Bill 1258, is named after Joel Reuter, who died in a shootout with Seattle police in 2013.

His parents, Doug and Nancy Reuter, came to Olympia from Texas to lobby the Washington State Legislature last year to pass the law. The bill passed the House unanimously, but was never brought to a floor vote in the Senate.

Joel Reuter had been treating bipolar disorder successfully for several years, but made a turn for the worse after starting chemotherapy for lymphoma. He died after shooting at police officers.

Joel’s family returned this session. Doug Reuter testified on Monday that he believes the designated mental health professionals are given too much leeway in making commitment decisions.

“They answer to nobody. The unilaterally decide who gets help and who does not get help,” Reuter said.

Nancy Reuter (left) and Doug Reuter speak to reporters after a hearing on "Joel's Law," named after their son.

All families want is the ability to make an appeal, he said.

“This will not only provide an avenue for family members to have someone else — a judge — look at all the evidence to determine whether they are a danger to themselves or others. And it gives the (designated mental health professional) a chance to review their files all at the same time,” Reuter said.

Reuter also criticized the fiscal notes from last year, saying the costs are overestimated they assumed ongoing mental health treatment, when the bill only addresses commitment.

One change in this year’s bill is a provision to give the mental health professional 24 hours to respond to the family’s appeal before the appeal is heard by a judge.

However, Shankar Narayan, legislative director of the ACLU of Washington, expressed concern over the rights of those who would be detained against their will.

“This is a human being, a person who’s interests might be different from their family members,” said Narayan after the morning hearing.

Mike De Felice, a public defender who works with mental health cases in King County Civil Commitment Court, said the changes could tie up designated mental health professionals in court, when they should be in the community making assessments.

De Felice and Narayan both made the argument that the best place for the investment is in community mental health.

“Olympia needs to fund outpatient treatment in the community, and we can avoid them coming into involuntary treatment,” De Felice said.

Legislators in both chambers and both parties pledged to get the bill passed.

“I have been working very closely with the Reuter family, and other parents with a similar story, who were unable to get help for their son after numerous attempts,” said Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, in a prepared statement. O’Ban is also the chairman of the Senate Human Services, Mental Health & Housing committee.

Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, said that since the issue was brought to the forefront last session, legislators have been hearing from families in similar situations.

“Across the state, legislators are now realizing that it’s becoming an epidemic,” Ortiz-Self said at a Monday afternoon press conference.

Doug Reuter said after the morning hearing that after the bill died in the Senate last year, he and his wife did not expect to return to Olympia for this session, but that Speaker Frank Chopp convinced them to return for another attempt to pass it.

“I thought everyone would forget Joel,” he said.

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DSHS seeks legislation for mental health competency services

By | January 7, 2015 | 0 Comments

The state Department of Social and Health Services will seek legislation this session that would allow it to provide some competency rehabilitation services outside of state psychiatric hospitals. The move comes after a federal judge ruled in December that wait times for criminal defendants in jail to be evaluated for competency to stand trial were too long and unconstitutional.

Jane Beyer, Assistant Secretary of Behavior Health and Service Integration at DSHS, told a joint legislative committee on Wednesday that the department acknowledged that some of the wait times were “inappropriate.”

“We do not agree with people waiting in jail as long as they are waiting in jail, and that’s why the governor in his budget had the funding request for additional evaluators and additional forensic beds at state hospitals,” she said.

Inslee’s proposed budget includes $8.8 million to open a new 30-bed forensic ward at Western State Hospital, five beds at Eastern State Hospital and additional staff to address court-ordered competency restoration services.

Currently, restoration services for people found by the court to be incompetent to stand trial are only offered at state psychiatric hospitals. Beyer said DSHS will ask for legislation that would authorize it to offer some of those services in other facilities, possibly modeled after crisis diversion centers in Fife and the Tri-Cities.

“There are individuals who have been charged with a misdemeanor or other low-level, non-violent felony that are willing to take medication,” she said. “I think we can appropriately balance public safety and clinical needs so we can provide competency restoration in places other than state hospitals.”

Otherwise, Beyer said the state will be “confronted with another ward and another ward at the state hospitals” at a cost of tens of millions of dollars in the future.

A trial has been scheduled for March 16 in the lawsuit against DSHS, which was brought by disability rights groups and ACLU of Washington.

House passes involuntary mental health treatment bill

By | February 14, 2014 | 0 Comments

Doug and Nancy Reuter, whose son Joel died in a shootout with Seattle police, were on hand Friday to see the House of Representatives pass a bill that would allow the families of those with mental illness seek help for their loved ones through the courts.

HB 2725 would allow immediate families to ask the courts to commit or treat a person with mental illness involuntarily.

Joel Reuter

The family and friends of Joel Reuter, who had bipolar disorder, tried to get him help when his behavior became erratic, but were told repeatedly by authorities that his behavior never rose to the level of involuntary commitment.

“Joel needed to be involuntarily committed because he didn’t know that he was slipping into psychosis. But his family members knew. His parents knew, his friends knew,” said Rep. Jay Rodne (R-North Bend), on the House floor.

“We can not not afford to put this bill into law because it will save lives and early intervention will spare the tragedy that Joel and his family underwent,” Rodne said.

“This bill gives families one more option, one that I believe they need,” said bill sponsor Rep. Eileen Cody (D-West Seattle). “I am hoping this will give families one more option and prevent tragedies.”

Under the current involuntary treatment law, a designated mental health professional must sign off to commit someone involuntarily. The patient must be at grave risk to oneself or others, either through threatening to harm someone or oneself, or through becoming unable to take care of one’s basic needs.

House bill 2725 would allow immediate family members to petition the courts if the patient is denied involuntary commitment by the mental health professional. The courts can review denials and could  reverse the decision, taking the family’s testimony into account.

Friends and family of people with mental illnesses testified to being unable to help with their loved ones’ erratic and dangerous behaviors.

However, a House committee also received testimony against the bill earlier this month, that the bill would burden the already overcrowded system and wouldn’t help with capacity issues.

Families seek help for mental health commitments

By | February 3, 2014 | 0 Comments

Doug and Nancy Reuter testified Monday that their son, Joel Reuter, might not have died in a shootout with Seattle police if his family could have convinced authorities to commit him for his deteriorating mental health.

Doug Reuter described to the House Judiciary Committee how their family tried in vain for authorities to decide that Joel’s increasingly erratic beliefs and behavior rose to the level of involuntary commitment.

“I was told that if he had a loaded gun in his hand with his finger on the trigger, then we

Joel Reuter

could get him help. That’s exactly what Joel had in his hand on July 5,” Doug Reuter said before breaking down in tears. “And the help they gave him was to kill him”

The Reuter family and other family members of people with mental illnesses told legislators Monday they need more help getting their loved ones into involuntary treatment. House Bill 2725, and its companion Senate Bill 6513, would offer a way for families to appeal to the courts if their family members have been denied involuntary treatment.

Joel Reuter had been undergoing treatment for bipolar disorder, but he stopped taking his medications. His friends also tried to intervene.

“We contacted the Adult Protective Services. We were told there was nothing we could do. We called the crisis hotline. Same thing. Police. Same thing. We contacted therapists. Same thing,” Reuter’s friend Kathleen Johnson said.

After Reuter died, a counselor at Harborview Medical Center told Katie Wixom, another of his friends, there was nothing anyone could have done to force him into treatment.

“She said all of us here knew Joel and we wanted to help Joel but there’s not a system to allow us to help him,” Wixom said.

Under the current involuntary treatment law, a designated mental health professional must sign off to commit someone involuntarily. The patient must be at grave risk to oneself or others, either through threatening to harm someone or oneself, or through becoming unable to take care of one’s basic needs.

House bill 2725 would allow immediate family members to petition the courts if the patient is denied involuntary commitment by the mental health professional. The courts can review denials and could  reverse the decision, taking the family’s testimony into account.

However, Mike De Felice, a public defender who works with mental health cases in King County Civil Commitment Court, testified in opposition. He says the bill would put a strain on an overburdened court system.

“This system is already so overwhelmed that our particular court had to turn a waiting room into another courtroom to deal with these cases each day. And now we’re talking about creating a third courtroom,” he said.

Also speaking in opposition, David Lord with Disability Rights Washington says the proposal would be ineffective without addressing overcrowding in hospitals.

“If you just change the law, and if you don’t have places for people to go, then I don’t see what you have done,” he said.

But families of the mentally ill say the bill would catch people who are falling through the cracks.

“We’re desperate. My son has lost just about everything. He insists he is not mentally ill, that everyone else is responsible for his difficulties,” Steve Danishek told the House Committee. “It’s one more tool for us to appeal to the courts for help. We desperately need your support on this bill.”

The companion bill was heard Monday in the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee.

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Mental health bills, education measure on ‘Legislative Review’

By | March 22, 2013 | 0 Comments

On Thursday’s “Legislative Review,” we have details about a couple mental health bills considered in the House Judiciary committee. One would speed up the implementation of an involuntary commitment law that the Legislature passed three years ago, but never funded. Another bill aims to break the backlog of people waiting in jail for competency exams to stand trial. Counties that are falling behind on evaluations would be allowed to hire outside experts to conduct the exams, at an estimated cost of $800 per evaluation. The state would reimburse counties for the cost. Plus, we have details on an education bill that is designed to boost student performance.

Involuntary commitment, ferry design and Senate floor action on ‘Legislative Review’

By | February 27, 2013 | 0 Comments

On Tuesday’s “Legislative Review,” we have details about a bill that would accelerate the implementation of the state’s involuntary commitment law. In 2010, the state Legislature passed a law making it easier to commit dangerous people with mental illnesses. But it never got funded. The measure discussed Wednesday would provide funding and move up the implementation date to next year.

We also cover Senate floor action, as well as a public hearing over a measure that would prohibit the state’s ferry department from designing boats in the future.