Many Steps Must Occur Before Someone Can Be Forcibly Committed

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

In a civil commitment hearing, a Virginia court decides whether a person needs to be committed against his will to a mental hospital for up to six months. In most counties, the general district court appoints "special justices," typically lawyers well-versed in mental health issues, to hear the cases and make the rulings.

But before someone faces a commitment hearing, he must be held under a temporary detention order. The order can be sought by "any responsible person," according to Virginia law: a parent who seeks help for a child, a police officer who thinks someone needs attention, a mental health practitioner who thinks a patient needs treatment.

At this stage, Virginia law requires that the local Community Services Boards, the government agencies that oversee mental health services in each jurisdiction, screen the person to determine whether he is an imminent danger to himself or others or unable to take care of himself, needs treatment and is unwilling to volunteer for it. If the screener makes such a determination, a magistrate can issue a temporary detention order, forcing the person to be hospitalized for a maximum of 48 hours.

During that time, an attorney is appointed for the person, and an independent evaluator -- a psychiatrist, psychologist or clinical social worker -- conducts a second examination. The evaluator then files a report with the special justice.

Within two business days, a commitment hearing must be held. The independent evaluator might or might not attend and testify, and be cross-examined, or the special justice can rely just on the written report. The defendant also might testify. The defense attorney can make a closing argument.

Before the hearing begins, however, the person is asked whether he wants to voluntarily enter treatment for a minimum of five days. In some counties, as many as half the hearings end when the person volunteers. But if the person declines to volunteer, the hearing proceeds. When the testimony ends, the special justice must decide whether there is clear and convincing evidence that the person is an imminent danger or unable to care for himself.

-- Tom Jackman

© 2007 The Washington Post Company