Alaska lawmakers this week debated an amendment that would allow notifications to family members when people are admitted to mental health facilities.
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Senate Health & Social Services Committee members discussed adopting an amendment to Senate Bill 124–which relates to admissions and detentions at subacute mental facilities–during a March 22 meeting. The amendment added language to the bill that would ensure that when an individual is admitted to a crisis stabilization center, crisis residential center, evaluation facility or treatment facility, that facility must immediately notify the respondent’s immediate family. Sen. Lora Reinbold (R-Eagle River) said the amendment was a high priority for her.
“I want to get this addressed,” Reinbold said. “This is really important. There’s a huge risk, in my opinion, of people not knowing where this person is.”
Sen. Tom Begich (D-Anchorage) voiced concerns about the amendment’s potential impact on respondent’s safety.
“The intent is to have immediate contact so that someone knows where somebody is, and I get that,” Begich said. “But I want to be sure that it is a safe contact. And I’m not sure that this amendment does that. I would maintain an objection to this for that reason. It’s not the intent of the sponsor to place a person in a condition of harm, I know that. But that might be an unintended consequence of the amendment.”
Unintended consequences could include an individual forced to continue having contact with an abuser.
Sen. Shelley Hughes (R-Palmer) said the Judiciary Committee–which will discuss the amendment next–can address Begich’s concerns.
“You could have an abusive situation, and the person could be fleeing from that, and that is why they’re having the mental health episode,” Hughes said. “So you do want to make sure you’re not notifying somebody who caused the episode through abusive treatment, whether it’s a guardian or a parent.”
Hughes said the Judiciary Committee—which she serves on–could alter the amendment to take extra precautions on the issue after its passage by the Health & Social Services Committee.
“Our intent is to [notify] both parents and guardians, make sure it’s not an abuser, and do it for when they enter the stabilization center or they’re transferred elsewhere that those notifications occur,” Hughes said. “If the sponsor [Reinbold] of the amendment would be comfortable with that, I can assure her that is what we’re working on.”
Reinbold said she was in favor of that.
Committee Chair Sen. David Wilson (R-Wasilla) said the amendment also posed a risk to respondents’ privacy rights. He said respondents may not wish to have certain individuals notified of their state.
“[A family member or guardian] may not be a person the individual would like to have notified,” Wilson said. “I have family members that only certain family members know that they may have an illness.”
Hughes addressed Wilson’s concern.
“I understand your position being a little uncomfortable when [the amendment’s] not finished, but I’m confident that I will be working on this, so I’m going to support it,” Hughes said. “Because we generally need to make sure this kind of notification happens. I think it is the right thing to do to get further work on it in Judiciary.”
The amendment was approved on a 4-1 vote.
“This is a super important issue,” Reinbold said. “This is not consent; this is notification. I actually wanted to make it a whole lot stronger, and make it not just notification, but I wanted consent. We didn’t do that. So to me, this is an issue, and I think it’s better if we go ahead and do it through a committee substitution when it gets to Judiciary. Then I know, at least, it’s in there, and if you guys need to modify it a little there, I understand.”