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Mental health access at issue in involuntary commitments

| Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 11:51 p.m.

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

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