Judge presses Dept of Human Services on civil commitment troubles

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For more on the troubles of civil commitment, read our March cover story, Unfit for Trial.
A Hennepin County judge wants to know why it's taking the state so long to transfer some mentally ill patients to psychiatric hospitals.

Judge Jay Quam, who presides over the mental health commitment court, pulled representatives from the Department of Human Services into his courtroom Wednesday to assess where the system stalls, and how to prevent patients from languishing without proper care in the future.

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Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek was also in attendance, and lamented that too many mentally ill offenders are left waiting in his jail after a judge finds them incompetent to face criminal charges.

"The bottom line is, we simply don't believe a jail environment is the best place to hold them," said Stanek.

The catalyst for the hearing was the case of Linda Desonpere, a 25-year-old with a history of violent behavior stemming from severe mental illness, according to court records. In August, Quam deemed Desonpere "mentally ill and dangerous" and ordered her transfer to the St. Peter Security Hospital. But due to lack of beds and poor communication, Desonpere spent two months at the University of Minnesota's Fairview hospital waiting to be moved.

Part of Wednesday's discussion was spent trying to assess how many people get stuck in the system like Desonpere.

In theory, the Department of Human Services will transfer a patient to a psychiatric hospital within seven days of a judge's commitment order.

Anne Barry, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Human Services, originally said they scarcely miss that target. In the past year, they have only failed to move a patient on time twice, she said.

But that's not so, according to the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office. Since Jan. 1, the jail has seen 20 offenders languish for seven days or more awaiting transfer, said Major Jeffrey Storms.

Barry said her data may have been incorrect. "I apologize for any misinformation to the court or to anyone," she said.

Stanek also argued that a seven-day grace period is too long. Once an offender is found mentally incompetent, the charges are either suspended or dropped. Stanek says he no longer has the legal right to incarcerate someone who is not facing charges.

"We are not set up as a mental health facility," said Stanek.

Quam ordered the Department of Human Services to gather more detailed data on how many people are left waiting after the seven-day period, and report back next month.

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