In the living room of her Olympia home, Crystal opens up a large file box that contains her son’s life history.
“As a mom you keep those shot records and those test scores in their little file even if they’re in their 20s,” said Crystal, whose last name we’re not using to protect her son's identity.
But this plastic box has something else: a detailed record of her son’s battle with addiction and mental illness beginning when he was 12.
He’s now 20. A couple of years ago he walked away from a drug treatment facility and began living on the streets. Crystal’s husband Larry said he was cycling in and out of the emergency room.
“Basically every 30 days we would get a call, it would be in middle of the night, you’d rush to hospital and then the DMHP would tell you we’re not going to hold him,” Larry said.
Emergency room visits and missed opportunities
DMHP stands for Designated Mental Health Professional. This is the person who determines if a mentally ill person should be involuntarily committed. The law says that can only happen if the patient poses an imminent threat to themselves or others or is gravely disabled.
But Larry says the DMHPs didn’t think their son met that test.
“We were being told by the DMHPs that this was a drug and alcohol issue and not a mental health issue,” he said.
Larry and Crystal estimate their son visited the emergency room more than 20 times during those two years. Each time felt like a missed opportunity to save him. The rest of the time they didn’t know where he was or if he was even alive.
“When we don’t know every phone call can be the call and so it just eats at you all the time,” Larry said.
Their worry and frustration grew. Then a colleague of Larry's reminded him of Joel’s Law. It’s named after Joel Reuter who was shot to death by Seattle police during a psychotic episode. It allows family members to petition a judge to overturn a DMHP’s decision.
But in the two years since the law took effect, only about 13 percent of petitions have been granted.
Last spring, Larry and Crystal tested those odds. It began with a knock at their door. A state trooper had found their son wandering in the freeway.
“I saw him in the back of the car, he didn’t really kind of recognize me and was completely out of it,” Larry said.
They told the trooper to take him to the hospital. But once again the DMHP declined to detain him. That’s when Larry started filling out the Joel’s Law petition. The next day he went to court—a place he’s very familiar with. That’s because Larry’s an attorney. But on this day he was just a dad trying to save his son.
Within a day, a judge reviewed their son’s detailed mental history and affidavits from family members describing his recent behavior. It was enough for the judge to order him into a 72 hour evaluation.
“So there’s a relief of the order that we got it,” Larry said. “But now I still don’t know where he is.”
That’s because their son was still on the streets. But then he called his parents. Larry arranged to meet him and alerted the cops.
“It was awful to sit in my car and see him get arrested and he would say ‘hey dad what are you doing,’” Larry recalled.
A dramatic change
Awful as it was, Larry and Crystal felt sure they were doing the right thing. Their son was ultimately committed to Western State Hospital for 90 days. His turnaround was dramatic.
“We were able to able have a lot of different visits with his grandmother and his sister and his aunties,” Larry said tearfully.
“And that was the first time since he became an adult person, so two years, that we were able to hold a conversation with him and be safe about it,” Crystal adds.
But it didn’t last. After he was released from Western State, their son went to a drug treatment facility. Soon after he walked away and returned to the streets. A couple of weeks later he ended up back in the emergency room. But this time the DMHP detained him.
Crystal is convinced it’s because his record now shows he was previously detained.
“Without Joel’s Law, without that petition we’d still be doing the every 30 days or the worst. We would get that call,” Crystal said.
Today their son is in a court-ordered drug treatment program after spending the last two months in a mental health facility. His parents say he’s still not happy they used Joel’s Law to detain him. But they’re convinced it’s given him another chance.