Bills address improper placement of mental-health patients with violent criminal histories
OLYMPIA….Freedom Nitschke, whose father was recently killed in an attack by a fellow resident at a Lakewood adult family home, will join Sen. Steve O’Ban to discuss two behavioral health bills at a press conference at 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 15 in the Senate Rules Room on the 2nd floor of the Legislative Building in Olympia.
Senate Bill 5038 and Senate Bill 5040, sponsored by O’Ban, R-University Place, seek to protect communities from the improper placement of mental-health patients with a violent or sexual assault history. Both are scheduled for a hearing at 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 15 in the Senate Behavioral Health Subcommittee to the Health and Long Term Care Committee, Senate Hearing Room 1 of the J.A. Cherberg Building, Capitol Campus, Olympia.
The two bills were introduced by O’Ban as part of a Senate Republican package of legislation focusing on behavioral health.
“Every day we are bombarded in the press with images of homelessness, substance abuse, physical abuse and violent crime,” said O’Ban. “One common thread running through all of these issues is mental illness. It simply is the biggest issue facing our state. It’s the root of the helplessness, despair and anger that is driving policy at the local and state level.
SB 5038 would bar violent and sexual offenders from being placed in adult family homes. Instead, it would require DSHS to place these residents in facilities that have enhanced services and adequate staffing to provide the proper level of security and supervision.
“If mental-health patients have a history of violence or sexual assault, they should not be placed in adult family homes that are not equipped to house them. It’s too dangerous for them and for the other residents in the home,” said O’Ban.
Freedom Nitschke knows too well the dangers that vulnerable residents of adult family homes face when someone with a violent history is placed in the same facility. Her father, Timothy Nitschke, was killed in November 2018 when John Quitorio allegedly hit him in the face with a coffee mug. Quitorio had a violent history that was not disclosed to the owners of the adult family home.
Typically, adult family homes contain only a handful of people who live together in a home that is run like a household. They provide a safe environment for residents who can no longer live at home, but do not require a hospital or institutional setting. The facilities were never intended, nor are they equipped, to handle residents with a violent past that could pose a threat to their vulnerable housemates.
Adult family homes are one choice in the process of transitioning mental-health patients back into society – the goal of our behavioral-health system. Unfortunately, little is done in the way of planning for this eventuality. This is evident in the severely disproportionate numbers of patients released from Western State Hospital (WSH) into Pierce County without any thought as to the ramifications on the local community, which seems to be the default plan because it is far less trouble for the hospital and DSHS than sending patients back to their own communities.
“When patients are released from a mental hospital, we shouldn’t overburden the counties in which the state mental hospitals are located. We shouldn’t turn places like Pierce County into dumping grounds for those released from commitment. Patients should be relocated back to their own counties,” explained O’Ban.
SB 5040 would prevent counties from being forced to take in the discharged patients who are not residents when they have committed felonies and are deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial. It would also require DSHS to create a discharge plan for all patients who are to be released that includes arrangements for returning them to their original counties. If, for some reason, a patient cannot re-enter their original county, the bill would require DSHS to develop an alternative that minimizes the impact on other counties.
The need for SB 5040 is illustrated by the case of Lawrence David Butterfield.
Butterfield was a schizophrenic, intellectually disabled patient at WSH who was scheduled for release. He also had a long history of violent behavior, including armed assault and assault with intent to kill.
Many years earlier, Mr. Butterfield was released from a prior commitment to WSH into Pierce County, despite not having any prior connection to the area. In 2010, he was charged with murder for stabbing his roommate but has not been tried because he has consistently been found incompetent to stand trial.
Not only has he never been prosecuted for the crime, he has been a resident at WSH ever since. And, even though doctors have found him to be at moderate-to-high risk of dangerous behavior, even while on medication, the hospital has repeatedly planned to release him from WSH into Pierce County. The most recent plan would have had him living in an adult family home in Lakewood and receiving mental-health services in Puyallup.
If the bills are passed by the subcommittee, they could be brought to the Senate floor for a vote.
To watch the footage of the press conference, click here.
To watch the hearing online, click here.