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Vet: Unjust civil commitment 'takes everything' away

April 8, 2015

A Marine Corps veteran is trying to put his life back together after he was wrongly committed when a court found him gravely disabled and dangerous. His case before the Indiana Supreme Court recently reformed the requirements necessary to deprive the liberty of someone with mental illness.

“Being a veteran, I take freedom very seriously,” said T.K., who spoke to Indiana Lawyer on the condition he not be identified. “They really deprive freedom in this process.”

For almost two weeks in October 2013, T.K. was committed by court order to a psychiatric unit at the Richard L. Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Indianapolis. He said much of that time was spent alone staring into space, punctuated by infrequent visits from medical staff. His cellphone was taken from him, giving him no contact with the outside world.

“Going through this process takes everything from you,” he said.

T.K. said he’s living through the stigma that came after his involuntary commitment, and he’s considering a federal civil rights lawsuit. He lost a job and hasn’t found permanent housing since he was committed after an emergency room visit – a trial court order the Indiana Supreme Court ruled was improper.

As the Supreme Court noted in his case, In the Matter of the Civil Commitment of T.K. v. Dep’t of Veterans Affairs, 49S02-1503-MH-138, T.K. had been working, supporting and taking care of himself before the commitment which his appellate counsel argued was based largely on hearsay evidence.

Joel Schumm mug Schumm

Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law professor Joel Schumm represented T.K. as a public defender. In his transfer petition, Schumm wrote, “This case is about much more than a sufficiency claim. It is about not looking the other way when serious mistakes by trial and appellate courts render a Hoosier’s right to an appeal meaningless.”

Justice Brent Dickson wrote for the unanimous court, “Clear and convincing evidence was not presented at T.K.’s civil commitment hearing to establish that he was either dangerous or gravely disabled, and thus we hold that the civil commitment of T.K. was improper and is hereby reversed.”

T.K. had been involuntarily committed after the Department of Veterans Affairs presented the testimony of a resident in psychiatry who examined him during an emergency detention for chronic paranoid schizophrenia and paranoid personality disorder, conditions which T.K. does not challenge.

The doctor, though, testified that he didn’t believe T.K. was a danger to himself or others, despite T.K.’s son’s concerns that his father’s behavior was erratic and aggressive, and that T.K. had mentioned use of violence in emails and on Facebook.

The record also shows that T.K. had been boisterous, behaved rudely in public, refused treatment, and had left flyers on car windshields about the criminal record of a man who molested his daughter and is married to his ex-wife.

“It’s a pretty thin record to support a commitment,” Schumm said. “If every time we thought possibly somebody might be doing something later on, (and) they were committed, we’d have tens of thousands of people in this state committed.”

In deciding T.K.’s case in the veteran’s favor on March 20, justices also refocused on the statutory requirement of presenting clear and convincing evidence of dangerousness or grave disability to support an involuntary commitment. The decision swept away precedent in a line of cases.

“Several recent decisions of the Court of Appeals … while perhaps reciting the phrase ‘clear and convincing,’ have not applied this standard of proof in their analysis but rather have affirmed civil commitment orders merely if such an order ‘represents a conclusion that a reasonable person could have drawn, even if other reasonable conclusions are possible,’” the court noted. “We disapprove of this line of cases.”

Those cases include M.L. v. Meridian Servs., Inc., 956 N.E.2d 752, 755 (Ind. Ct. App. 2011), trans. not sought; S.T. v. Cmty. Hosp. N., 930 N.E.2d 684, 688 (Ind. Ct. App. 2010), trans. not sought; K.F. v. St. Vincent Hosp. & Health Care Ctr., 909 N.E.2d 1063, 1066 (Ind. Ct. App. 2009), trans. not sought; and J.S. v. Ctr. for Behavioral Health, 846 N.E.2d 1106, 1111 (Ind. Ct. App. 2006), trans. denied.

Julie Webb, a spokeswoman for the Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said she was not authorized to discuss the particulars of T.K.’s case. “Right now we are reviewing the decision and then we will determine any actions from that,” she said.

Schumm said the Supreme Court ruling gave meaning to the statutory language that sets a high bar for a reason. “This opinion hopefully has impact and raises the expectation for what trial judges are going to expect before they grant a commitment,” he said.

“Here, my client was just saying unsavory things and being loud and making people uncomfortable,” Schumm said. “You’re allowed to do these things in a free society.”

Yet Schumm said many involuntary commitments aren’t challenged even when evidence to support a dangerous or gravely disabled determination may be lacking. “It was important that the Supreme Court take this case to provide some guidance,” he said. “Hospitals may be less likely to bring some marginal cases that may have been brought in the past.”

While not condoning T.K.’s behavior and expressing a desire for more cooperation between T.K. and doctors, Dickson wrote that these concerns are not sufficient to support an involuntary commitment.

“Instead, at best, the evidence suggests that T.K.’s loud, boisterous, and rude public behavior harmed his reputation and made others not want to be around him. That is not sufficient evidence to support a civil commitment on grounds of a grave disability,” the court concluded.

T.K., meanwhile, was pleased with the result of his case despite the hardships it’s created in his life. He’s working part time and receiving counseling, but he’s concerned that his commitment might make it tough to improve his life.

“If you don’t have a ton of resources, it’s hard to navigate these things,” he said.•

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