Changes to law on psychiatric testing debated

Bill would ease criteria for forcing evaluations

February 27, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Karen Logan tried to have her 23-year-old son committed to a psychiatric hospital in August. Though she thought James was exhibiting signs of paranoid schizophrenia, he didn't think he needed treatment - and because he hadn't done anything dangerous, he was free to go home under the law.

A few days later, she called police to report more aggressive behavior, but officers didn't witness anything dangerous and left without her son.

The next day, a court ordered an emergency psychiatric evaluation for her son. As two Prince George's County sheriff's deputies served the papers, authorities say, James Logan shot and killed them.

Karen Logan told her story yesterday to a House of Delegates committee considering legislation that would ease requirements for detaining and evaluating people who appear to be a danger to themselves and others.

Had she been able to get treatment for her son, Logan told lawmakers, she believes the deputies might never have been killed. "Perhaps [the bill] could save the lives of others," she said.

The House Health and Government Operations Committee and the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee began considering legislation to change Maryland's standards for psychiatric evaluations yesterday.

Under current law, people can be taken for emergency evaluations by health professionals - who don't often make house calls and are often not available on nights and weekends - or by police officers who witness the dangerous behavior. The detainees must show clear and "imminent" danger to themselves or others.

The bill would drop the word "imminent," making it easier to get patients to the hospital - though standards for admission would remain at the same level.

"When we wait for imminent danger, it's often too late to avert a tragedy," said Evelyn Burton, a volunteer with the Maryland chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

Lynn Hano Albizo, an attorney with the national alliance, submitted testimony for someone who couldn't attend yesterday's hearing. Jan Lemons Rector is serving a 30-year sentence at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup for killing her boyfriend in 1991 in a paranoid rage.

Rector explained that her husband had tried to persuade her to get attention for her mental problems, and she left him instead of doing so. Her new boyfriend "told me what I wanted to hear - that I didn't need psychiatric help," she wrote.

"Tragically ... it has taken my murdering him to get me the psychiatric care I have needed to manage my mental illness," she wrote. "The current standard for emergency evaluation is inadequate."

Opponents of the change argued that the bill would erode people's civil liberties, that the experience of being detained - possibly wrongly - for many hours (the bill allows for up to 30 hours) could do more harm than good.

"A pressing need has not really been documented," said Michael Susko, speaking for the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Council, an advisory body to the Maryland Disability Law Center. "No studies have been done."

"You have to be very careful when you incarcerate citizens. It's not something done lightly," Susko said. "People who go through this will remember it for the rest of their lives."

Tim Scully, with the state's Office of the Public Defender, told delegates he would like for police officers not to have to witness the behavior to take someone in for an evaluation, but he doesn't like loosening the standards for what constitutes a dangerous situation. It could lead to an abuse of the system, he said.

"Instead of clarifying this situation," Scully said, "you're making it much worse."

But some delegates suggested that community safety ought to be a consideration.

"At some point," asked Del. Gareth E. Murray, a Montgomery County Democrat, "don't you think we have to look at what's best not for the individual but the community at large?"

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