Snohomish County faces mental health case backlog

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by JOHN LANGELER / KING 5 News

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KING5.com

Posted on August 19, 2013 at 6:48 PM

Updated Monday, Aug 19 at 6:50 PM

The Snohomish County Public Defender’s Association said Monday it faces a backlog of Involuntary Civil Commitment hearings, with its attorneys dealing with three times more cases than advised by the Washington State Bar Association.

Involuntary Civil Commitment hearings are held when someone in police custody fights the state’s desire to get them mental health treatment.  A judge determines whether that person is hospitalized or released.

“What has happened in recent months is we’ve come to a crash position,” said the director of the Snohomish County Public Defender’s Association Bill Jaquette. “All the sudden, everybody in the system is saying, well gee, we can make this work better.”

Jaquette has funding for one attorney, and that money is divided between two lawyers.  They are only supposed to work 260 cases per year.

“I think there’s a dimension, which is the rights of the individual would be better served if we had more people,” Jaquette said.

This week, the county is allocating an emergency fund of $32,000 to employ a public defense attorney for the rest of the year.  In 2013, Snohomish County has held more than 400 Involuntary Civil Commitment hearings.  According to county Superior Court, the number of cases has tripled in the last ten years.

At the same time, mental health professionals are expecting cases to increase in 2014.  New state laws designed to get the mentally ill the treatment they need will likely create more Civil Commitment hearings.

“There’s more possibility to prevent tragedies from occurring,” said Joe Valentine, Executive Director of the North Sound Mental Health Administration. “This change in the law will provide more opportunities to intervene earlier.

“Again, the challenge is whether the funding will be there,” he continued.

Washington is devoting more resources to providing beds, treatment and services to the mentally ill.  It comes in the wake of several high-profile crimes involving those battling mental illness.

“Do you want to spend your money on the front end,” Valentine questioned, “Do you want to wait until things get really bad?  I just think we as a society have to find ways to spend money on the front end.”

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