Forensic Mental Health: Contemporary Issues and Interactions Involving Justice-Involved Persons with Mental Illness

neacjs-logo-US-left-colorv21-300x251WESTBOROUGH, MA April 30, 2017 The Northeastern Association of Criminal Justice Sciences has announced the date for its upcoming annual conference to be held in Rhode Island at Roger Williams University in Bristol.  The conference will be held on June 7-10 2017.

The topic this year is Forensic Mental Health: Contemporary Issues and Interactions Involving Justice-Involved Persons with Mental Illness that has been in the news when it comes to police encounters with those so afflicted.  In Massachusetts alone over 120 people thought to suffer with mental illness have been involved in lethal force situations with law enforcement between 2008-2016.  The program is still being drafted but I have been invited to present the Psychological Autopsy as a Forensic Tool along with my colleague Brian Gagan and co-author of the Psychological Autopsy of Steven Lake – Dexter,

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Dr. Sefton discussing psychological autopsy of Steven Lake with coauthor Brian Gagan (left)

Maine Homicide-Suicide in 2011.

Co-occurring Illness: Effecting change at times of crisis

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WESTBOROUGH, MA  – April 24, 2017 There is no magic solution for de-escalating someone who is in “crisis” or emotionally distraught.  The loss of control may signal a failure of reality testing that can signal a diminished capacity to appreciate the consequence of their behavior.  This occurs frequently when people who have mental illness have co-occurring drug and alcohol addiction. It is true that the correctional system has more than its share of mentally ill prisoners but for many being in jail is the only way to stay sober.  The full capability to provide mental health services in the correctional system here in Massachusetts has not been realized.  The courts are reluctant to require that someone receive treatment for mental illness and/or substance abuse in lieu of going to jail.

Criminality and mental illness are not mutually exclusive so there will always be a high number of incarcerated persons with chronic underlying psychiatric diagnoses.  The prevalence of mental illness in the general population may range from 5-15 percent. The degree of mental illness in the correctional system may be as high as 40 percent by some accounting but the number is misleading. One needs to consider treating mental illness when it becomes a barrier to functioning such as in schizophrenia or bipolar depression where the symptom profile interferes with reality testing. Only then may a contract for treatment may be constructed to include medication and psychotherapy depending upon the diagnosis.  In cases where mental illness and co-occurring substance abuse exist a determination about primary diagnoses and treatment options must be considered.

“The consequences of dual diagnosis include poor medication compliance, physical comorbidities, poor health, poor self-care, increased risk of suicide or risky behavior, and even possible incarceration” according to Buckley and Brown, 2006

In many cases of emotional crisis those in need can be diffused with recognition of their struggle – such as death of family member or loss of employment.  By showing empathy for their emotional burden police officers and mental health providers can intervene and make a real difference.  But effecting change takes time and a consistent message that personal responsibility begins at home.  Instead of placing blame on a “system” that is filled with holes individuals need resilience and family support to get the help they require. teachinginprisonBefore I am criticized for being insensitive, I point to the 12-step programs in alcohol and drug recovery.  They are free and in many cases provide 24-hour support and mentoring at times of crisis. I strongly believe that if people can remain clean and sober than the need for crisis intervention will decrease.  Ostensibly, this is a perfect first step toward recovery and will bring forth a palpable reduction in emotion and reduce the potential for violence.  When substance abuse is stopped emotional growth is more able to take hold.  Healthy, more effective problem solving may result from prospering emotional maturity allowing for resilience and enhanced coping.

Stress can engulf individuals and families for a variety of reasons and should not be judged. People cope with stress differently and in many cases achieve emotional relief by having someone to talk to.  Some clinicians believe great personal change may be possible when coping skills are most frail.  But in too many instances, drug and alcohol abuse present a confounding variable when working with person’s diagnosed with mental illness. At the same time this raises the risk to law enforcement exponentially. Why?

One response to stress is the increase in substance use and with that increase there is often a worsening of any underlying mental health disorder such as depression and anxiety.  “There could be a common factor that accounts for both, primary psychiatric disorder causing secondary substance abuse, primary substance abuse causing secondary psychiatric disorder, or a bidirectional problem, where each contributes to the other.” (Buckley and Brown, 2006) Unemployment, early childhood trauma, financial burdens, and random emotional baggage result in a range of actions that foreshadow regression and failure of coping mechanisms that put us all at risk.  Some people are able to endure extreme levels of stress with little to no outward sign of distress while others boil over at the first sign of conflict or emotional ripple.

JAIL DIVERSION

There is a growing push toward alternative restitution and jail diversion for those with mental health and substance abuse problems.  In San Antonio, TX, the Bexar County jail had been filled to capacity for many years.  As a jail diversion and mental health program evolved the population dropped by 20-25 percent from 5000 inmates to 3800.  Data suggests that over one quarter of all prisoners may experience mental illness or substance dependence/abuse and are not receiving treatment.  But here in Massachusetts the systems are not available to make this innovation an effective reality in any scale.  Many departments are using jail diversion options such as drug treatment and counseling but here in Massachusetts psychiatric treatment cannot be court mandated. Arrest may not be indicated simply because a person is in crisis but those in crisis may be involved in some type of criminality such as assault, criminal threatening, domestic violence and property crimes. So what options are available? The drop out rate for patients suffering from major mental illness is quite high. They often stop taking prescribed medication and do not attend counseling sessions.

MENTAL ILLNESS, CRIMINALITY AND RESTORATIVE JUSTICE

bigstock-Mental-illness-in-word-collage-072313As a police officer I found jail diversion a discretionary tool that was used a great deal. Nevertheless there are times when arrest is the proper course of action but jail diversion remains a possible negotiating point for those charged with some crimes.  The correct response to intimate partner violence should include aftermath follow-up and intervention when the immediate crisis has settled from the events that brought police to this dangerous threshold. Arrest is mandated by state statute when one spouse has visible injuries. Whenever possible using a restorative justice model – often limited to incarcerated individuals – may allow those arrested for crimes against persons to reconstruct their encounters with police and gain concrete understanding of events and the impact substance abuse may have had on the actions taken by themselves and law enforcement. Some never attain empathy for victims, family members including action taken by police and wind up behind bars.  Police encounters with persons having co-occurring mental health and substance abuse are frequently violent and often result in charges for assault on a police officer and more. In the aftermath of these encounters offenders may be sent to treatment in lieu of formal charges with the understanding that sobriety and psychotherapy are indicated.  In cases of treatment avoidance police have the option to file charges later on.

Techniques for understanding mental illness may facilitate mutual understanding and establish the needed bridge to facilitate treatment as published in 2015 (Sefton, 2015). Those seeking diversion from incarceration must demonstrate the willingness to change and take responsibility for their actions.  The relationship between law enforcement and community agencies is one that requires a strong foundation and mutual understanding of the framework for reducing recidivism, criminality, and managing mental illness.


Buckley, P. F., & Brown, E. S. (2006). Prevalence and consequences of dual diagnosis. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 67(7), e01-e01.

Sefton, M. (2015) Emotionally distraught – nearly one-quarter of all officer-involved shootings go fatal. https://msefton.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/emotionally-distraught-nearly-one-quarter-of-all-officer-involved-shootings-that-go-fatal/. Taken March 5, 2017.

The use of force continuum follows the principle of causation by guiding police decision making based on the level of threat

“There will always times when police officers encounter those with mental health needs especially in times of crisis and social disorder. Training and education offer the best hope for safe and efficient handling of cases. A continuum of options for detox, dangerousness assessment and symptom management must be readily available – but here in Massachusetts they are not”

Police are building bridges and throwing life savers

WESTBOROUGH, MA  – March 30, 2017  Police officers are being trained in crisis intervention techniques across the country and Canada. This training offers plenty of practice role-playing scenarios that come directly off of the call sheets affording a reality-based training opportunity. I recently spent time riding with members of the San Antonio PD mental health unit and have the greatest respect for the officers with whom I rode.  In contrast, some departments regularly have highly trained clinicians riding with officers bringing expertise in mental illness and abnormal behavior across the thin blue line.  It is thought that by sharing knowledge at working with unpredictable, drugged out, psychotic and delusional and angry who police encounter on a daily basis better outcomes may be achieved. No single model is best and all are still in the growing stages of establishing protocols for bringing those most disturbed individuals in from the margins. More and more officers are receiving CIT training every year.

The important part of crisis intervention training comes in the interdisciplinary relationships that are forged in by this methodology. Trust and respect between the police and its citizens builds slowly one person at a time.  Community policing is not a new concept but fiscal priorities often prevent its full implementation.  Just the same, there must be trust and respect between the police and the purveyors of crisis intervention and mental health risk assessment including doctors, nurses, and health care practitioners. This also takes time and training and the shared belief in the model.


“When officers are faced with a deadly situation, when there is a gun pointed at a cop, there is no time to go into mental health measures,” according to Grace Gatpandan, spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department


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Michael Sefton, Ph.D. in 2017 photograph

The use of force continuum belies each officer contact and guides the process when police are called upon to defuse a dangerous encounter. It is best that a mental health contact be made long before violent threats are made – long before terminal rage erodes personal judgment. The community policing doctrine affords this front end contact and encourages officers to know the people living on the beat.

POLICE ENCOUNTERS WITH MENTALLY ILL CITIZENS

The Boston Globe Spotlight series on police encounters with the mentally ill cites one distraught parent who was quoted “I only wanted the police to disarm him not shoot him dead.” Unfortunately for this family, when faced with lethal violence it is the behavior of the subject that drives the ship in terms of what will or will not happen.  “When faced with a deadly situation, when there is a gun pointed at a cop, there is no time to go into mental health measures”. All too often people fail to see the cause – effect relationship between citizens with guns or other lethal weapons and the police officer response.  The use of force continuum follows the principle of causation by guiding police decision making based on the level of threat.

What came first the threat or the police action?  It is the primary action of the citizen the evokes the lethal response by police.  If citizens dropped weapons and listened to police officer directives during these high energy and chaotic events there would be fewer deaths.  To say they lack training in mental health is preposterous.  Almost as preposterous as saying if they were better parents the mentally ill subject might not aim his gun at police or threaten his mother with a knife.  No, the responsibility lies with the mental decision-making and subsequent behavior of the subject himself.  If mental illness drives the violent behavior than all weapons and substance use must be carefully controlled and eliminated.  When people attend psychotherapy sessions and 12-step recovery programs the proclivity for violence is greatly reduced.  Inevitably, drug abuse is a co-morbid factor that alters perception and fuels underlying anger and violent tendencies.  Who is responsible for this? When drug addition or alcoholism begin – all emotional growth including adult “problem solving” begins to fail until it is fraught with uncontrolled, impulsive violence. Rather than placing blame, greater emphasis on sobriety, counseling and developing emotional resiliency should be encouraged.


Lowery, W. (2015) DISTRAUGHT PEOPLE, DEADLY RESULTS: Officers often lack the training to approach the mentally unstable, experts say. http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2015/06/30/distraught-people-deadly-results/?utm_term=.86e44d33dfab Taken March 5, 2017

What are “collateral consequences” in domestic violence?

WESTBOROUGH, MA March 21, 2017 When working as a police officer I was asked to take the statements of women who were asking for protection from an abusive spouse or intimate partner.  These requests were usually granted by the on-call judge – especially if children were at risk or a history of physical abuse was suspected.  But these orders only last a short time – perhaps a weekend.  In order to have restraining orders extended the victim is expected to go to the district court and swear testimony that specifies the reasons for an order of protection including threats or actual physical harm, forced sexual contact, pathological jealousy – whatever.  Sometimes this happens and protection orders are extended usually for 6 months. During this time the couple is expected to sort out their differences and engage the help of a family therapist, if possible.  This rarely happens.


“Domestic violence is not random and unpredictable. There are red flags that trigger an emotional undulation that bears energy like the movement of tectonic plates beneath the sea.” according to Michael Sefton.  A psychological autopsy should be undertaken to effectively understand the homicide and in doing so contribute to the literature on domestic violence and DVH according to Sefton who with colleagues published the Psychological Autopsy of a case from Dexter, Maine where a father murdered his children, estranged wife and ultimately himself (Allanach, et al, 2011).


More often than not, the victim fails to appear for this process and the protective order goes away without any consequences. Why? In the time between the initial emergency order and the Monday morning when the victim is expected to substantiate her initial claims she may have been bullied by her spouse and worked over by his family, his friends and whomever he can enlist in his camp to get her to let it go. She is made to believe that she cannot function without her abuser.  When children are involved an abusive spouse will usually say that child protective services will take the children for whatever reason he comes up with.  He promises to destroy her credit worthiness, she will be penniless, and he threatens to share lies about her on social media pages for all to see. He may also promise to kill her and cut her to pieces to be used as fish bait – as I have been told in a case being investigated by my former agency. But he swears his love for her always.

This happens over and over.

In some cases the order to extend the restraining order results from elevated risk to the victim and recurring threats of violence. In these cases orders of protection go on for months or years at a time.  This type of bullying is an example of the often secretive coercion that takes place in DV and intimate partner abuse is flagrant and often goes unreported.  It must be considered whenever an initial order is not sustained especially if the victim fails to appear.

In some cases there is more than one order of protection issued to protect one or more intimate partners. This is a red flag and should have bearing on the bail requirements but seldom does. There should be some follow-up with the original complainant by the police department to investigate her reasons for not pursuing the extended order of protection and determine what impact bullying may have played on the victim’s decision.  In rare cases permanent orders are granted because of compelling evidence that the victim and her family remains at risk – usually the result of stalking.

In March 2014, I published a blog in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court granted a permanent restraining order even though the former spouse was living in Utah and was remarried. In 2014 the Boston Globe did a story on the case written by Martin Valencia essentially raising the spector of the abuser in this case and the current impact the court order has on his day to day life in Utah.

Kevin Caruso was unable to get a job as a youth baseball coach because of a continuing order of protection here in Massachusetts that shows up on his CORI report. He could not own a firearm and was sometimes hassled at airports. The SJC ruled that Kevin Caruso must submit “clear and convincing evidence” that he no longer poses a danger to former girlfriend in a case dating back to 2001.  The Supreme Judicial Court  in Massachusetts has required that Mr. Caruso provide proof that “he has ‘moved on’ from his history of domestic abuse and retaliation”.  It is well-known that male abusers move from one abusive relationship to another.  A colleague Dr. Ron Allanach wrote “In the Caruso case, the Court is proactive, sensing the burden is on the offender rather than the victim; thus, the responsibility for proof that Mr. Caruso has “let it go”, poses no danger to the victim and has done the necessary therapy on his own behavior and to figure strategies to change, rests precisely on the shoulders of the offender where the burden should always remain.” The SJC called the frustration felt by Mr. Caruso the “collateral consequence” of the permanent restraining order put in place initially issued as a result of his threats to kill his former girlfriend.  Time alone and location has no bearing on whether a permanent order is sustained.  No person should live is fear that a former partner is going to appear at her workplace or stand behind her in the line at Starbucks while she thinks about what blend of coffee she might want.

“Substantive decisions about bail or no bail holds will be more reliable by having access to the violent history of domestic violence offenders and the protective orders that have been issued time and time again.” Michael Sefton


Allanach, R. Court is proactive. Personal correspondance. March 2014

Sefton, M. 2014,  https://msefton.wordpress.com/2014/03/11/collateral-consequences-stay-away-orders-that-are-forever/ taken January 21, 2017

Valencia, Milton. SJC rules on Utah man’s permanent restraining order. Boston Globe March 11, 2014, taken March 24, 2017

Saluting a fallen brother and bringing him home

WESTBOROUGH, MA March 18, 2017 Most people leave their homes and go to work.  Many work in sales or IT or perhaps they teach school.  It doesn’t matter because that all changes when you are a member of the fire service or a brother police officer. Then you become a member of a family that many say takes a hold of you like no other.  There is a bond among fire fighters and a respect that runs deep within the fire service – the family of firemen.  The bonds are forged in the hours of training, answering calls, and sitting chewing on the issue of the day.  And then one day someone goes down.  In police service it’s called the “oh shit” moment when something happens so quickly that your response is purely defensive sometimes too late as in the case of the Flagstaff, AZ 24-year old officer whose body camera recorded the oh shit moment that took his life last year.

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Boston Globe photo

Firefighter funeral traditions show our deep gratitude and respect for the honorable contribution they make to society. When a firefighter dies, he is considered a “fallen hero” and his funeral will indicate such an honor.    D. Theobald

The fire service is even more protective of its ceremonial reverence for the ultimate sacrifice made by a heroic fallen firefighter.  Everything stops. Every one steps up and does whatever is needed to support the surviving family and each other. Someone is usually assigned to stay with the bereaved family 24 hours a day. The ritual of bringing home a fallen fire fighter is age-old. Firefighters remain with the body and bring it home with care and reverence afforded a fallen hero.  This custom was once again brought to bear when Watertown, MA firefighter Joseph Toscano, 54 died while fighting a 2-alarm house fire this week.  The death of a fire fighter is a rare occurrence but happens frequently enough that most people can remember the show of reverence from members of the fire service everywhere.  In 2014, 2 Boston firefighters were killed in a wind-driven conflagration on Beacon Hill and who can forget the 6 Worcester firefighters who lost their lives in December 1999, or the Hotel Vendome fire in Boston that took the lives of 9 Boston firefighters over 40 years ago.

Watertown, Massachusetts has seen its share of catastrophe in recent years in the police and now fire services. The funeral will be attended by thousands of local firefighters and those from across the United States. Fire houses in Watertown, Boston, and elsewhere will make accommodations for out of town brothers and sisters attending the funeral. No member of the fraternal family is ever turned away.  The coffin will be on display for those of us so moved to pass by and offer a final salute to the firefighter and his family.  The honor guard will stand at head and foot in solemn deference for the ultimate sacrifice. The surviving spouse will be strong as she has been for many years over many calls for service.  Her husband has helped so many people.  He has seen much and has dealt with this before.  But as the flag draped coffin is moved into place the release of emotion will be palpable for all.  The fire chief will present the folded flag to Maureen Toscano his wife of over 20 years.  He will offer words of comfort to his five children. They will never be forgotten because they are part of the extended family of firefighters.  The 150-year old ritual of bagpipes will play Amazing Grace while men from Newton, Boston and Cambridge stand guard at the Watertown fire houses to allow every Watertown firefighter to attend the service. To grieve and begin the healing process.

A Catholic Mass will be held.  The streets of Randolf where the family lives will be lined with a sea of blue uniforms each one holding back tears – having been through this before.

As Watertown firefighter Joseph Toscano knows it could well have been any one of his brother officers who fell that day and he would never have stood by for that.  A heroic effort was made to save the life of Joseph Toscano by members of the Watertown Fire, EMS and Police departments. He was rushed to Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge – the same place where MBTA Officer Richard “Dic” Donohue was rushed after the 8 minute firefight during the search for the marathon bombers in 2013.  Officer Donahue survived but lost nearly all of the blood in his body. Donahue retired from the Transit Police in 2016 after his promotion to sergeant and deals with chronic pain on a daily basis.  Emergency crews at Mt. Auburn were not able to revive Joe Toscano.

His body was carefully moved from the chief medical examiner’s office in Boston – just 5 miles away to Randolf – but he was never alone. Members of his department including his chief rode on Watertown Engine 1 and a ladder truck leading the hearse and a legion of police officers.  Firefighters from neighboring cities stood along highway overpass with hand salute as Firefighter Toscano was headed home. Among the most powerful of ceremonial rituals is “the last call.”  This occurs when the fallen officer is called on the fire band radio for all to hear – “Firefight Toscano come in….” there is silence.  The fallen officer’s call sign is again dispatched – silence once more.   Finally, the dispatcher indicates that the fallen officer has gone “10-7” signaling that he is no longer on duty – in this case signaling – the end of his watch.  A bell sounds 15 times indicating the firefighters final call.  Often the dispatcher will say something like “You have served your community with honor and reverence, good sir, we will take the watch from here.  Rest in peace – Firefighter Toscano and know you are a hero and will never be forgotten.”


Firefighter’s Prayer


When I am called to duty, God,
wherever flames may rage,
give me strength to save a life,
whatever be its age.
Help me embrace a little child
before it is too late,
or save an older person from
the horror of that fate.
Enable me to be alert,
and hear the weakest shout,
quickly and efficiently
to put the fire out.
I want to fill my calling,
to give the best in me,
to guard my friend and neighbor,
and protect his property.
And if according to Your will
I must answer death’s call,
bless with your protecting hand,
my family one and all.

Goals for Crisis Intervention – 5 stage model

5 Stages of Police Crisis Intervention

  1. Scene safety – Assess for presence of firearms – obtain history of address from dispatch – have back-up
  2. Make contact with complainant & subject – express a desire to help; listen to explanation of the problem – ascertain what is precipitating factor?
  3. Establish direct communication with subject – attempt to establish trust; support for taking steps toward change; “why now?”; identify any immediate threats – sobriety
  4. Pros and Cons for change – ascertain how willing  is subject to begin change process, i.e. sobriety, counseling, detoxification
  5. Positive expectations for change = direct movement toward change – hospital program; rewards that will come with positive change

“A crisis event can provide an opportunity, a challenge to life goals, a rapid deterioration of functioning, or a positive turning point in the quality of one’s life” (Roberts & Dziegielewski, 1995).


Roberts, A. R., & Dziegielewski, S. F. (1995). Foundation skills and applications of crisis intervention and cognitive therapy. In A. R. Roberts (Ed.), Crisis intervention and time-limited cognitive treatment (pp. 3–27). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.