Mental health access at issue in involuntary commitments
Ruth Johnston's hands were tied.
For months, her son Levi Staver — diagnosed with schizophrenia a year earlier — said he heard voices in his head. He was having trouble with the concept of money. He drove but often couldn't remember where he had parked. He thought he was an alien cyborg.
Worst of all, said Johnston, 49, of Richland, he believed his grandmother was evil and had tried to kill him.
Because Staver was an adult, Johnston could not force her son to take medicine or seek treatment. She tried to commit him involuntarily to Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Oakland, but was told she couldn't because he wasn't violent — yet.
Johnston said on Feb. 19 her life “was turned upside down in five minutes” when Staver, 26, fatally stabbed his grandmother Constance Johnston, 76, once in the back while she ate breakfast with her husband in their Richland home. Police said Staver told them that he was on the computer in his basement bedroom when “the archangel” directed him to “kill the witch.”
Pennsylvania law requires proof that people are a “clear and present danger” to themselves or others to justify an involuntary commitment.
“By the time the danger was clear and present danger, there was no way for the law to protect my mother,” Johnston said. “Levi had no history of violence at all, and yet he developed a delusional belief that his sweet, loving, cookie-baking grandmother had tried to kill him with a knife.
“Now my mother is gone forever, and Levi will spend his life in a hospital.”
Staver is in Torrance State Hospital in Derry Township, and his mother is hoping state lawmakers ratify a bill in the Senate Committee on Health and Public Welfare that would make it easier to commit people to mental facilities against their will.
The bill, authored by Sen. Patricia H. Vance, R-Cumberland County, would allow a threat against another person to be substantial enough evidence to have someone committed, said Jamie Mondics, a spokeswoman for the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va., which tracks such legislation. The legislation also allows the decision-makers to look at the “totality of the circumstances,” not just evidence from the last 30 days, as the law now stipulates, she said.
“If passed, the bill would be an essential tool for helping people with severe mental illness access treatment,” Mondics said. “It would have helped Ruth get the treatment her son needed. Levi could have qualified for commitment on the basis of his repeated verbal threats to harm Ruth's mother.”
Vance did not return calls for comment.
Experts said if the bill had been law, doctors at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic might have been able to commit John Shick involuntarily. Instead, he opened fire in the hospital on March 8, 2012, killing therapist Mike Schaab, 25, of Regent Square and wounding receptionist Kathryn Leight, 66, of Glenshaw and three others. University of Pittsburgh police officers shot and killed Shick.
Attorneys representing UPMC this week said Shick, 30, of Oakland did not meet the state's requirements for involuntary commitment, even though he twice brought a baseball bat into UPMC facilities and two doctors had asked Western Psych for involuntary commitment papers, but didn't follow through with filing them.
Mark Homyak, Leight's attorney, was in court Wednesday and could not be reached for comment. UPMC spokeswoman Gloria Kreps declined to comment.
Johnston, who stays in contact with her son through letters, believes the bill will help families across the state, even if it is too late for hers.
“If we would have had it a few months ago, my mother might have had a chance,” she said.
Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Beechview man arrested on child pornography charges
- 12-year-old’s donated heart joins families, lets her memory live
- Pittsburgh police officers start wearing video cameras
- Former Rollier’s store to become art gallery, cafe
- Proposal to limit access divides Penn Hills, Homewood neighborhoods
- Rules hamper Franklin Regional attack victim scholarships
- Man arrested in connection with string of Route 8 burglaries
- Pittsburgh Trails Advocacy Group volunteers cut trail in South Park
- Foundation donates $350K to revitalize facades in Downtown Pittsburgh
- Legal titans prepared to tussle in Ferrante cyanide homicide trial