OLYMPIA — When her 33-year-old son leaves jail or a treatment center after a mental-health and drug-addiction crisis, Theresa Yates says, there’s nothing to keep him from winding up back on the streets.
After an episode, he’ll be taken to jail and then involuntarily detained at a hospital or treatment center, said Yates, 54, of Tacoma.
“They’ll let him back on the street with a plan, and his plan is to go to the shelter,” she said. But, she added, “He won’t go to the shelter. Nobody can make him, because he has rights.”
That’s what brought Yates to a committee hearing Friday to speak in favor of a bill by Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, intended to provide treatment for adults suffering from mental illness or drug addiction who won’t or can’t help themselves but aren’t in bad enough shape to be detained.
Senate Bill 6109 would create a four-year trial run for a new executor program in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. Under the bill, someone who has been involuntarily detained at least five times in a 12-month period could have an executor appointed to them to help oversee treatment.
The bill would also create requirements to make available treatment, supportive housing and vocational rehabilitation for those in the program.
O’Ban called the bill an attempt to bridge the gap between treatment that people get voluntarily and the high threshold that needs to be met in order for officials to detain someone under Washington’s Involuntary Treatment Act.
Under that law, someone “in imminent danger because of being gravely disabled” or who “presents an imminent likelihood of serious harm” can be detained and given involuntary treatment.
At a news conference before Friday’s hearing, O’Ban said his legislation was geared toward “those who consistently refuse care and shelter, but suffer crippling addictions and mental illness.”
“Unless government intervenes, their conditions harden, the likelihood of recovery lessens, and many will perish,” he said. “We owe them and their parents more, a lot more.”
Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, also spoke at the news conference in favor of SB 6109.
“This will increase the safety of the public, it will increase the safety of law enforcement, and very importantly it will increase the safety of the people involved,” said Strachan.
Standing nearby was Jerri Clark, founder of the advocacy group Mothers of the Mentally Ill, who talked about her son’s long struggle with mental illness. She recounted a story of the last time he was released from involuntary treatment in a hospital.
“I pleaded with the staff to make sure he was released into appropriate housing,” Clark said of her son, who died by suicide last year. Instead, he was sent to an emergency shelter.
He discarded his medication, according to Clark and “spent six days running around Seattle in psychosis with no fewer than five interactions with law enforcement.”
“But none of those experiences led to a level of imminent threat or criminality that would allow public officials to do anything to help him,” said Clark. “He didn’t get help until he broke into a residence and was arrested on felony charges and thrown in King County Jail, where he immediately tried to kill himself …”
Lawmakers are seeking other ways to make it easier for officials to intervene with people needing mental-health treatment.
Senate Bill 5720, sponsored by Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, would make several changes to the Involuntary Treatment Act, including changing the threshold for someone to be detained.
For example, the definition of “serious harm” would be expanded to “include a risk of physical harm evidenced by harm, substantial pain, or which places a person in reasonable fear of harm to themselves or others,” according to a legislative analysis.
Dhingra’s bill passed the Senate last year but stalled in the House. Last week, Senate lawmakers passed it again, and she said she hopes it will get to the governor’s desk this year.