Joel’s Law Mental Health Statute may be a lifeline for family and friends

By Diana Kiesel, Commissioner.  

It is hard to read a newspaper or magazine without an article about the mental health crisis in our county. I’m writing this article during my Civil Commitment rotation at Western State Hospital. Frequently, I see family members appear in court to support loved ones during civil commitment proceedings. The family members often are relieved that a loved one is finally receiving mental health treatment. Some cases on my dockets are initiated by a family member or friend filing a Joel’s Law Petition. Some of you may not know the Joel’s Law process. It is important that we have some knowledge of the process because at some point, all of us will have family members, friends or clients who want to help someone with a mental health history. Attorneys are still counselors at law and often we are asked questions outside our area of expertise. Let me give you some information that may help you educate others about the Joel’s Law civil commitment process.

RCW 71.05.201 and RCW 71.05.203 identifies the Joel’s Law process. These statutes may be lifelines to family members, guardians and/or conservators to petition for civil commitment if a designated crisis responder (DCR) investigated and declined to detain a person, or the Designated Crisis Responder failed to investigate after a request for DCR services was made. Most people assume all lawyers know about all areas of the law. You may be asked for guidance by a client about a family member who needs mental health treatment, but the mental health system seemingly is not responding to the pleas of family and friends. Joel’s Law may be a resource.

The first step in the process is to make sure that a request has been made to the Designated Crisis Responder Team at Mobile Outreach. The criteria for detentions of individual for mental health disorders is “that as a result of a mental disorder presents a likelihood of serious harm, to self, or others, or is gravely disabled. The contact numbers for the Mobile Outreach Crisis Team (M.O.C.T.) ae (800) 626-8137 or (800) 576-7764. Upon referral, a DCR may conduct an interview of the person with acute mental health systems, including information from family and friends. If the person with the mental health symptoms is detained, who will then be the respondent in the litigation, the State may file a petition for involuntary treatment. If the DCR fails to interview the person showing acute mental health symptoms within 48 hours., or the DCR fails to detain that person, a family member or friend may file a Joel’s Law Petition. A significant barrier, however, to treatment could result from a co-occurring diagnosis of substance abuse and mental illness.

Once the Joel’s law petition is filed, the Superior Court Commissioner must review the petition within one judicial day and decide if there is enough evidence to proceed. The Court then issues an order directing the DCR to file, within one judicial day, a written sworn statement describing the reasons the person was not detained or evaluated. The DCR must provide to the court all information material to the DCR’s decision.

The court then issues an order denying the petition if insufficient evidence exists to detain the respondent. The reasons to deny the petition include:   no person allowed by statute filed the petition, petition was filed in the wrong county, there is no evidence the DCR investigator was requested, the petition was not filed within ten days of referral or investigation, or there is insufficient evidence of basis for commitment.

If the court signs an order requiring the DCR to respond, the Court has five judicial days to issue a ruling either granting or denying the petition. The court may order initial detention if there is probable cause to support the petition, and the respondent has refused or failed to voluntarily accept appropriate mental health treatment. Lives can be saved when family or friends are able to access the Court, by filing a Joel’s Law petition seeking the Court’s review of the process and hearing the input of the immediate family.

If you have any questions about this process, please contact the Clerks at the Western State Hospital Court. The Office of the County Clerk at Western State Hospital Court is (253) 756-2951. Also, the forms are found at the Washington Courts website at: