The House voted unanimously to change the civil commitment statute and allow a mentally ill person to be placed in state care even if they are not suicidal or violent -- the two most common reasons for civil commitments.
“This change to the civil commitment statute is small but important,” House Majority Leader Val Hoyle, D-Eugene, told The Lund Report through her spokesman, Scott Moore. “I believe we have found the right balance in the bill between protecting people’s civil liberties and protecting vulnerable people.”
While the traditional standard for civil commitments is “dangerous to self or others,” the revision in House Bill 3347 narrows the existing law.
Currently, a person can be hospitalized against their will if they are “unable to provide for basic personal needs and are not receiving such care as is necessary for health or safety” -- but the courts have been reluctant to use this law.
HB 3347 changes that provision to clearly state: “unable to provide for basic personal needs that are necessary to avoid serious physical harm in the near future, and are not receiving such care as is necessary to avoid such harm.”
“This bill makes sure that people like Susan Hughes can get the help they need,” Hoyle added.
Hughes has been living in Eugene in a tent rife with rats and rancid with rotten food, which she hordes. She suffers from bouts of psychosis stemming from a brutal rape when she was a young woman. Last winter, she nearly died after she refused to leave her tent even as the temperature dropped as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit. She showed signs of agoraphobia, making her unwilling to move to a shelter or a residential unit.
Social workers and law enforcement were able to save Hughes’ life by admitting her to a local hospital on a three-day hold, but the Lane County courts declined to commit her to a state mental hospital. Hoyle said a homeless Portland woman who had been starving herself was not so fortunate -- she died. “There is a point where we could step in,” she said.
Getting HB 3347 to a unanimous vote took careful negotiations with people initially opposed to the bill, including the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and Bob Joondeph, the director of Disabilities Rights Oregon, the federally funded organization that lobbies on behalf of vulnerable Oregonians.
As Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, commented, while well-meaning authorities may feel their hands are tied, many people with mental illness and their advocates view civil commitments as prison.
“We don’t think the commitment standard should be opened at all,” Joondeph told The Lund Report, explaining that he didn’t support HB 3347 but he was neutral on the final bill and pleased he could negotiate the amendment with Hoyle. “The original bill didn’t come out the way she intended…. We worked on the amendment so at least the bill would work out as intended. The government has an interest in keeping people from immediate harm.”
Despite opening a new mental hospital in Hoyle’s district, the state is still not putting enough resources into community mental health, local crisis centers and housing, which would do more to move the dial, Joondeph said.
HB 3347 was among four bills this session related to civil commitments, and Joondeph doesn’t believe lawmakers who backed that legislation did enough to involve people with psychiatric disabilities, the people most affected by them. “They need to be at the table,” Joondeph said. “That’s something that’s been woefully inadequate for all these bills.”
Two of the bills died in the House Judiciary Committee, while the fourth, Senate Bill 840, which was sponsored by Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, allows nurse practitioners to sign commitment orders, a responsibility currently limited to physicians. Doctors currently sign the orders even if the patient had been seen by a non-physician provider.
Joondeph had no problem with Bates’ bill: “Back in the day, doctors were the ones who did all the work. There are other providers who are perfectly equipped, and nurse practitioners are perfectly capable.”