As part of my family law practice, I represent people in Baker Act and Marchman Act proceedings. Sometimes people are not treated right in these actions. The Baker Act is to order people into treatment for mental illness. The Marchman Act is to order people into treatment for substance abuse. With the Baker Act, people are held in locked facilities. The denial of liberty is significant and the power to do this to a person should be fairly applied and properly limited to those situations when necessary for the protection of the person or public.*
Truthfully, there is very little privately retained Baker Act work for lawyers. The facilities usually prepare the petitions which often come about after the police have brought someone to the facility. The state attorney’s office “prosecutes” them on behalf of the State. I’m not aware of any way for a private petitioner such as a parent or spouse to file a Baker Act petition but I counsel and advise them about the proceedings and monitor the proceedings. The public defender’s office represents almost every Respondent (the patient) in Baker Act hearings. I get a Baker Act case representing a patient only once in a long while. One of the ways I stay involved with the Baker Act is to serve as a volunteer Guardian Advocate for Baker-Acted patients which is basically service as a medical proxy.
I have been inside Palm Beach County Baker Act receiving and treatment facilities many times. I have spoken to patients, administrators, social workers, nurses, doctors, family members, and government lawyers. They are good people and I have had mostly good experiences. In my experience the facilities release individuals who have been Baker-Acted fairly quickly and routinely. Usually I feel that the process is done professionally and with integrity. This morning was a scary and upsetting departure.
I was retained on a Monday by a husband to represent his wife who had been Baker-Acted. He did not know the time of the hearing, only that it was scheduled for the next day. This was to be the hearing on the petition for involuntary treatment which would determine if she could be forced into treatment for as long as six months. As the husband understood the situation, she had been using a drug that caused her to have psychotic-like episodes. She had been Baker-Acted previously (not to this facility) but released within a couple or few days. I spoke to the client by telephone and it was clear that she wanted to be released. She was no longer psychotic and she wanted to go to a drug treatment program. (This facility does not provide drug treatment). We were going to appear at the hearing and fight the petition for involuntary treatment.
She had been admitted four days earlier and by statute had a right to a hearing within five days if she was to continue to be held involuntarily. Baker Act hearings occur at the facility. It took a few phone calls but I learned the likely time of the hearing and which Magistrate was scheduled to handle the hearing. The hearing was scheduled for the next morning.
The next morning I arrived early at the facility and told the receptionist I was the attorney for the patient for the Baker Act proceeding. This was announced to someone. I met with the husband, and spoke to the client by phone. She was completely coherent and anxious to be released. An orderly took clothing to her that the husband brought for her to wear to the hearing. I was going to meet with her before the hearing. It was not totally clear when the hearings scheduled for that morning were to begin, but sometime between 9 and 10 a.m.
As we were waiting the husband and I were informed by an employee that the hearing was cancelled because the patient had signed a consent to stay voluntarily. We were dumbfounded.
We insisted on talking to her, and to the doctor. At no time in the entire time the patient was there did the doctor talk to the husband, who is her medical proxy. The husband got her on the phone again and she said she had not signed anything, but that they had presented papers to her. She said she was told if she signed the consent papers then she could ask to be discharged and she would then be discharged the next day. We demanded to see her and the papers she was being asked to sign. The employee came out again and said she had not signed the papers (no explanation for the lie), but that the doctor had changed her orders to voluntary admission so she was being asked to sign them. Since she was no longer being held on an involuntary basis, she would not have a hearing, the employee explained. I demanded that she be released immediately. The employee explained that is not the procedure. The hospital had 24 hours to release her. I asked whether the doctor could, in that time period, change the admission once again to involuntary, start a new Baker Act proceeding and continue to keep her. The employee said that yes, that could happen but it was not likely. I told her that was unacceptable and that we demand that the hearing take place or that she be released immediately.
We were told first that the doctor was not there. Obviously that wasn’t true. Then we were told he was there but would not come out to speak to us. At this point I was demanding to speak to the facility administrator and the assistant state attorney who we knew was already at the hearing room.
About another ten minutes passed. The client was now pretty anxious as the husband and I continued to speak to her by telephone. (She was just in the next room, but not allowed to come speak to us, nor were we able to go in to speak to her). Then the employee came out again and told us that the doctor changed the order to immediate discharge. No explanation.
I truly believe the doctor changed the order from involuntary to voluntary admission to deny the patient a hearing when he learned she had private counsel. This happened to a person with resources, a caring spouse, and a private attorney. Can you imagine the people who do not have these advantages?
These proceedings are not open to the public. The public rarely has any opportunity for oversight. The State Attorney and Public Defender, and the Magistrates who hear these cases, have an important role in administering justice but only for those cases that actually get to a hearing. We have to rely on the integrity of the facilities. Do they know what is going on?
*Please do not be offended by the gifs in this post. They are for visual interest and to punctuate the story and are not meant to make fun of anyone or diminish the seriousness of this issue.
For more about Joy A. Bartmon go to http://www.bartmonfamilylaw.com/about-joy-bartmon/