In this episode, Jason and Amber catch up with attorney Kathy Flaherty, a fierce advocate for disability rights. During the conversation, Kathy explores the parallels between the criminal justice and mental health systems, and explains how advocates in both spaces can work together. Kathy walks the audience through her experience with involuntary commitment, law school and the challenges she faced being admitted to the Connecticut bar due to her mental health treatment history.
Kathy currently serves as Executive Director of Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Inc. (CLRP), a statewide non-profit agency which provides legal services to low income individuals with mental health conditions, who reside in hospitals or the community, on matters related to their treatment, recovery, and civil rights. Prior to coming to CLRP, Kathy spent 15 years as a Staff Attorney at Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut, Inc. Kathy combines her personal experience as a recipient of mental health services and her legal background to speak to issues affecting those living with mental health conditions.
Kathy can be found tweeting at @ConnConnection.
Everyone has a voice, a story to tell. Some are marginalized and muted. What if there were a way to amplify those stories; to have conversations with real people in real communities; a way to help them step into the power of their lived experience. Welcome to Amplified Voices, a podcast lifting the experiences of people and families impacted by the criminal legal system. Together, we can create positive change, for everyone.
Hello, and welcome to another episode of Amplified Voices. I am your host Jason, here with my co host, Amber. Hello, Amber.
Good morning, Jason.
And today we have our guest, Kathy Flaherty, also from Connecticut. Hello, Kathy.
Hi, Jason, Amber. Thanks for having me.
Very excited to have you here, Kathy. I've gotten to know you a little bit over the last year, especially in a lot of the meetings that we've been in together. And the question for you is actually a little different from what we've asked other guests. Usually we ask, tell us a little bit about your life before entering the criminal justice system. But today, I'm going to ask you about your life before entering just the legal system in general. And what was your life like before? And then what happened?
Sure, thanks for the question. I think in some ways, my entering the legal system by going to law school, very much interacted and intersected with entering the way the mental health and legal system interact. Because my first one 1-L year of law school, I was civilly committed to a psychiatric hospital. I did not know that you could be forced to go to a hospital that you didn't want to go to.
So, I just have to back up a second. How did we go from I'm now going to be an attorney to, I'm civilly committed?
What happened, I was already a mental health patient, in air quotes. The reason I ended up going to law school in the first place is because I got so depressed and so anxious my senior year at college, that I physically could not walk into the Science Center. And I was a biochemistry major, and I was doing a senior thesis research project. And when you cannot go into the building, it makes it a little difficult to complete a thesis. And I started going to counseling. The counselor suggested to me, why don't you just drop the thesis, which was a thought that never occurred to me. But after I did, I needed some classes to graduate. And I took a criminal justice class, which was fascinating. And I took another class on the anthropology of law and justice. So, spring of senior year of college, is when I decide I'm going to go to law school. So, I'm a year behind everybody, because I had not taken the LSAT the time that people usually do when they go into college, pre-law, knowing they're going to go to law school. So, I take the LSAT in the spring of my senior year.
What was the plan before that?
I was going to be a research scientist. I was going to be working in a lab. And at that point in time, it was the mid 80s, so it was doing research on Epstein Barr virus on HIV. I really thought I was going to be a scientist. That did not happen.
Wow, from science to law. That's a big jump.
Yeah, exactly. When I decided I wanted to go to law school, I knew I wanted to be a legal aid lawyer. I took one year off. There would need to be a year to give me time to apply to law school and get in. And then I got super depressed after I graduated. So, it took another year for me to get around to filling out the applications. So, I started law school.
Where did you go to law school.
I went to Harvard in the fall of 1990 and school starts late August. I go to health services during orientation, to start setting up an appointment with a psychiatrist because I was on medication at that point and I needed to see somebody. And I was going to my appointments every week. And in retrospect, I was manic. I'd always been depressed. I'd always been anxious. But this was the first time where I was, in retrospect, admittedly, in the middle of a manic episode. I couldn't really go to class because I couldn't sit still. I joined a lot of student organizations. I think I formed a new student organization. But one day I was at my on campus job and my supervisor said, don't you have an appointment with the psychiatrist? And in retrospect, all of these things should have been lots of red flags or alarm bells ringing but they just weren't. And I said, Oh, yeah, you're right. And they're like, don't worry, I'll watch everything here. You should go to your appointment. And I go, dad is there. And so I'm 23 years old, and my dad is there. And I should have been a little bit more curious as to why my father was there. But I wasn't because I was just oblivious. And this is why I say people don't realize the way the mental health legal system works. I sit down, and she's like written papers for you to go to a hospital. I swore at her and I walked out. And there were two exits to the building from that office. You either could go outside, directly up some stairs, or you could go into the tunnels that lead to other buildings at the law school. I went to the outside door, right into the waiting arms of the Harvard University Police Department, who brought me back in. And then they explained that she had written these papers, and they were bringing me to the hospital to be evaluated. And they're like, do we have to cuff you? And I said, No. And they put me in the back of the ambulance and carted me off.
The police took you to a hospital. And at the time, it was just like, we're taking you there to be evaluated.
Pretty much. The police brought me back into the psychiatrist's office and the ambulance attendants came in and said, Is this going to be hard or is this going to be easy? Which I think is something a lot of people probably hear. And I remember them giving me a little brochure about what my rights were. So I'm reading it. And I asked him for a pen and remarkably, they gave it to me. So, I started writing notes on that brochure, and my dad sat in the front of the ambulance, because I didn't want to talk to him. I'm just like, I want nothing to do with you, because you clearly were in on what's happening to me. And they brought me to McLane hospital. I was admitted. I signed myself in voluntarily, so that I could revoke that and say I wanted to leave. But another thing that people don't understand when it comes to mental health treatment, is the way you can leave another hospital against medical advice - you don't get to do that at a psychiatric hospital. What you do is you tell them that you want to leave, and they decide whether they're going to let you go, or whether they're going to initiate a further legal process to keep you. They did that process. So, I am somebody who has had the experience of being represented by court appointed counsel, who was not as zealous and advocate on my behalf as I would have liked. So, when people talk about how they feel their lawyers don't really listen to them, or don't really advocate for them, or are just part of a system and playing along with the system. I know what that feels like, because I've been in that position as the client.
So what was it like for you as you were signing your name and going in? What was going through your mind at that point?
This was the fall of 1990. So, some of this gets lost to memory as decades pass. But I do remember thinking, what is this gonna mean? Grew up in the suburbs, went to college, got into law school. Whether it's living the dream in law school, or living a nightmare in general to be in law school, I'm not entirely sure. But I was making forward progress. And it just seemed like the world was crashing in and I did not know really what was going to happen next. In retrospect, I was a very depressed, very anxious child. But it was the 70s and nobody really cared. Because as long as you did well, in school, I don't think there was really any awareness of kids mental health issues. And they certainly didn't do anything about it. And they didn't label you. And if you were performing in school, nobody cared. It's just like, just keep going. So that's really the track I was on. It was like college, then grad school, and then a job. That's what I figured was going to be the life trajectory. And it just got disrupted.
Were you worried that you were going to have to repeat the semester or the classwork that you're doing?
I went into the hospital October 11 of 1990. So I didn't get that far into the semester. But Harvard made it very clear that I could not come back that year, and that I would be forced to go on medical leave, even though I didn't want to. I was like, why can't I come back right away? And they're like, no, we're not having you back. In retrospect, whether that was actually entirely legal, because the ADA had passed the summer before in July of 1990. I don't think I was aware of the ADA at that point. But they're like no, you have to go on medical leave. Yes, we are going to bill you for the room for the semester. Yes, we are going to charge you. So it's, I have a weird amount of money in my law school loans because they're just like no, you have all these bills. And I'm like, okay, fine, I don't have any money, so good luck. Then took out the new loans for the next year. And they're like, and you have to petition to be able to come back. So it was not a guarantee, I'd be able to return. But I did get to return the following year with conditions that I stay compliant with my treatment, that I couldn't be a leader of any student organization, and There was one other condition that I'm not remembering. But I do know that my third year, I did petition to get the condition that said I couldn't lead a student organization off, because I was in charge of something. But the fact that I had to petition this board of people to let me do something, I see raised eyebrows when we're having this discussion. And usually when I tell the story, that's how most people react because they're like, this is a law school, don't they realize what the laws are. And when it comes to disability, I think pretty much most people would say that Ivy League schools don't do a good job. I think a lot of schools still do a profound disservice to their students with disabilities. And I imagine they probably do the same thing to their professors and staff with disabilities. One thing I wasn't aware of that I only became aware of when I returned home to Connecticut, is that at the time, the Connecticut Bar Examining Committee had all kinds of questions on its application. And so that's how most people really learned about who I am. Because they ask questions about within the last five years, have you received treatment for any one of a host of mental health diagnoses? Which of course I had to answer, yes.
How long were you in this civil commitment type of situation?
I was committed for up to six months, because that's what Massachusetts law allows. I was discharged from the hospital after 60 days, not saying that's completely linked to the length of coverage my insurance policy had, except that it was. You can't convince me otherwise. The last two weeks I was in the hospital. I had full grounds and full town's privileges, because you have this little privilege system that you work through. And really what that meant was that I woke up in the morning, I took my morning meds I signed out for the day, I literally got on the bus from Waverley Square to Harvard Square, would hang out in Cambridge all day, would come back at night. That was the last two weeks. Like that doesn't happen because private psychiatric hospitalizations aren't like that anymore. But back in 1990, you did. I got admitted a few times in the 90s for medication changes. They don't do that anymore, either. When it came that my insurance was running out, they're like, okay, you can go home. And so, that's when I came back to Connecticut. For the rest of that year I waitressed, I did some other like temp stuff, and then went back to school the following year.
Did you feel an improvement in your mental health?
I wasn't manic anymore. I will say that the one thing medication did achieve was knocking the mania out of me, mostly by virtue of the fact that the meds were incredibly sedating.
But did it also take joy away from you for a while?
Yeah. And the way I really describe it to people is, if they work for you, great, but we really need to have a conversation about this because medication does work for a third of the people. It provides some symptom relief, without a lot of adverse side effects. For a third of the people, they get some symptom relief, but have a lot of adverse effects. And that's really the area where I think I sat. And then you've got a third of people who get no benefit at all, will get at all of the negative effects. And I can't really say I'm part of that group, except for the fact that between 1990 and 2003 ish, every new medication that came out, we tried. Because nothing was really working to get rid of the depression, the manic side of things, but locked me into this low grade, always in sometimes suicidal depression. And nothing broke through that and nothing worked to get over that.
I'm so sorry.
The way I describe it now is that there was a lot of years where I existed and I functioned. So I was here, but wasn't living. I would go to work, and I would do fine at work, but I would come home and not do anything. I'm still amazed to this day that my husband took with me through all of that because the first year and a half we were married I was in and out of the hospital several times. And it would have been very easy for him to just say, I don't need this. But he didn't. And he still here, and I am a very lucky person.
Did he have experience with this before?
No. We met on AOL Net Girl in the early, early, early ages of the internet when you did not have pictures and you couldn't see people. And I had a very short ad that he answered, and he was just really funny and really funny emails. But I had a lot of people who I had met and had the first meeting with and because I tend to be a combination of over-sharer, and just not having a lot of time to play games, I would be open about my psychiatric diagnosis. I did not have a lot of second dates. If you aren't prepared to deal with all of me, it was fine. He made that first cut just for the fact that he stuck around for more than one date. But after we got married, there were challenges. And I would have totally understood if you walked away. The way I put it is, I didn't want to be on the planet. So like, why would anybody want to be with me. But fortunately, we're both here, which is really what matters.
So Kathy, you talked a little bit about when you went to the hospital. You spent 60 days there. Was there a point where it was, oh, they're not going to let me leave? Or did you have an awareness that when you went there, they were not going to let you just walk out the door, if you felt like it?
Oh, it was made very clear to me at the beginning that you don't get to just leave. Like I said, I read that little booklet that said, If you sign yourself in voluntarily, you can revoke the voluntary and decide to leave. And I should have read the next paragraph that said, if you do that the hospital may petition to commit you. Because that's exactly what ended up happening. Talking with my fellow patients slash inmates was probably the best part of the experience, because I think we offered a lot of support to each other in a way that the professionals just couldn't. And the peer support for what was then called the Manic Depressive and Depressive Association of Boston, met at McLane Hospital. When I had enough privileges to be able to go to those groups, one thing that was good is I saw people who were living in the world with the same diagnosis I had. I really lucked out in terms of having those kind of role models. I think the other thing is, I was so manic that I couldn't really focus. And one of the things that I do remember is, once the medication kicked in a little bit, and slowed down the racing thoughts, and I could read and I could focus, read every little brochure that they had around and said, okay, if you check these boxes, I do match this particular diagnosis. I tested boundaries. I think the staff grew to love me. But I also think they probably were very annoyed by me because I was a difficult person.
I could see you going in there as a young woman, who's a first year student at Harvard Law School, saying, I got this, I can do this, I can master this. What was that like in terms of people being there? How did they view you? And did you use this as fuel for yourself in terms of the next phases?
Absolutely. One of the things I remember is, when you're on a psychiatric unit, you don't have access. This was 1990, before you had cell phones, anyway. The only phone you had was like the literal payphone that was attached to the wall. And what happened is, I was terrible. I had a calling card, that was my mother's, that I had memorized. And so I would call her all the time. And I would call her at work and she worked for the state. I was really abusive to her on the phone, because I was convinced that my parents had everything to do with why I was locked up. And I was very angry at them. And so, what they would end up doing is shutting off the phone from the nurse's station, because they could. There were switches where they could do that. And then I would say "That's illegal, because under the patient's Bill of Rights, people have the right to use the phone". And they're like well, you not use it?, and I would promise not to use it and then five seconds later I would go back and use it again. And so it was like this endless circle. I remember getting sent to the quiet room. And I would stand in the door with one foot in the room in one foot in the hallway. And they're like you're supposed to be in the room. I'm like I am in the room. But that was the kind of obnoxious person I was. And in some ways, I don't know if people realize that the way the system treats you, it brings out the worst in you because the system itself tries to impose this level of coercion or this level of control. And I remember the one time I got involuntarily medicated, the nurse had tears in her eyes when she was giving me the shot. The other thing is first-year law students are the most obnoxious law students in the world as you can probably imagine, because we think we know everything. And we don't but we think we do. And I would say the legal standard says this, and I don't think you need it for this that reason and I probably didn't finish the sentence because I got a shot of Haldol that put me to sleep. And I still don't think they actually met the legal standard for emergency use of the medication. And yet, the way the system works, they got it.
I am glad that you're sharing that idea that sometimes the system, and the way that it works, brings out a little bit of the worst in people. I don't really talk about this a lot, but I do have a family member who found themselves in a similar situation after a suicide attempt. Some things that my loved one told me was like, I went in there, I had no shoe laces, I'm wearing this paper suit and it was terrifying. This is not comforting. There's a reason that this attempt happened. And here I am being thrown in a place that's so isolating and cold and harsh. And I can't leave. How is this going to help me? So I thank you for sharing that.
I thank you to Amber for saying what you said, because I think what is so frustrating with so many of the mainstream messages about mental health, is they always say things like, it's okay not to be okay, just reach out for help, help will be there. What I really want to share, and I think more of us have been sharing, and one of the things I really appreciated in terms of the criminal legal system reform spaces, I started talking about how these mental health spaces are really the same way. And we need to talk about reforming them the same way. And I remember more than one person at the meetings saying, "Man, my aunt, or my uncle or my cousin or whatever, was telling us these things and we didn't believe them, because we thought it was all related to the mental illness and they were making it up or they were crazy. And are you saying that's what it's really like inside?" Yes, I am not lying to you. I have nothing to gain by sharing this part of my story. But I know for me, there are things that happened on inpatient hospitalizations that made it clear for me, that was never going to be a safe space for me again. I had that first hospitalization that was against my will. I did stay engaged in the system for decades, as a patient. I did truly admit myself voluntarily several times. But that was a struggle in and of itself, because the system doesn't make it easy for you to get admitted. And something that happened the very last hospitalization, I'm like, that is no longer an option. So one of the things I said to my husband, I said, You ever see me getting really bad again, lock me in the house, do what you need to do. I said, but do not bring me to a hospital ever again, no matter what.
People who have been through the criminal legal system know this. When you get a cavity search, when you've never had to have that experience before. And I had never had it prior to that. And I'm like, that's what they do now? I don't need this. I came here to get help. This is not what I need and this is not helpful to me in any way whatsoever. And so I just said hospitals are not going to do it because I just don't need to go through that again. In general, I think the hardest thing is we need to figure out a true alternative for people. Where we create spaces where people can go and feel safe, and be safe, but not have additional damage done.
Kathy, can you talk a little bit about the differences between involuntary versus voluntary when somebody's reaching out for help? And I like that you mentioned this idea of alternatives and I'd love to hear some thoughts around that as well.
Sure. People often talk about, and you sometimes do hear this from family members is, we couldn't get him help until he was in absolutely terrible shape. The system would do nothing for us. And what I say is, what you were actually talking about is the standard for involuntary treatment. When you hear some of the mainstream groups talk about, we have to do something before stage four, the worst possible things where somebody is truly presenting a danger to themselves or others. The system does allow voluntary interaction at any point. The problem is that when somebody reaches out and says I need help, is there help actually there, and what is it, and is it culturally competent? Is it accessible? Is it available? All of those things. But when you're talking about, they couldn't do anything till he was a danger to himself or others. That's the standard for forcing treatment on somebody. You don't have to let things get to that point. The problem is if your system doesn't have adequate resources, if it's not culturally competent, if it's not available and accessible. And people aren't getting the services and supports that they're desperately looking for. And that's when things get to a crisis point. And that's when you get all the forced treatment, which causes its own trauma, and negative impact in pain. You wonder why we get stuck in this vicious circle.
I have so many questions. But before we get too far away from the law school, I want to ask these two questions. So, you ended up graduating from the school you started with. You then took the bar, you were telling us a little bit about that. And I want to know about the relationship with your parents. What happens after? Were you close with them after or did you continue to have some sort of resentment?
I probably always bear little flames of resentment within me. But no, we had a good relationship. My parents were awesome. As frustrated as I was with them, when that first hospitalization happened, my mom and her husband came up and visited me in the hospital. If they didn't come every week, they were at least there every other week. My dad, his health wasn't as great, so he couldn't come up as much. I was resentful of my brother, because my brother never came and visited me. But we realized later, my brother never visited anybody who was ever in a hospital ever. For whatever reason, he just was never able to do that. And he's been gone for 15 something years now. So, always wish I could have had a conversation with him about that. What was up with that. Then again, he was maybe 20. And seeing his sister who was like, everything I was, which he wasn't, end up in a mental hospital. Who knows what that actually did to him. But no, I have a good relationship with my mother. It's like most mother daughter relationships, there are challenges. And we've had times where we go, not speaking for a little bit, but we're close. She lives in Florida now. And I miss her and I can't wait till I get vaccinated too so eventually I'll be able to see or again. The pandemic has this made that super hard. And my dad has passed away. It was hard for them. I was up at school in Massachusetts - Connecticut not that far away - but sometimes when you want it to be far away you are. And I think they just felt lost and they didn't know what to do. Think about it. This was on 1990. Patti Dukes book was out about having bipolar disorder. But this was not a time where everybody and their cousin had picked up that label. So it's actually been a really interesting last 30 years watching how all of this has evolved. And yet, we're still at a point, 31 years later, where we're still calling the cops on people who were in distress and having people end up dead. And we're still forcing people into psychiatric treatment that, like I said, causes a lot of its own trauma and pain. And we don't have enough voluntary services and supports. So you wonder how much progress have we made. And then every couple weeks, there's this new person who is going to be all brave and out about their mental illness to raise awareness and fight the stigma. And I'm like, Oh, my God, we've been doing this for 30 years already.
And your journey was, you ended up getting a law degree and became an attorney.
I didn't catch that part of the story, actually.
Alright, then I won't tell it. you tell it.
You remember, I was telling you a little bit about the questions on the Connecticut Bar Examining Committee.
And they would ask, have you been hospitalized and everything else? And I remember, because this was back in the day when we still had paper applications. I got to that page and said, What is this?, and tossed across the room. Because I was like, this doesn't seem right. I hadn't been asked questions that level of detail in either Massachusetts or New York. And so, I had interned at Connecticut Legal Rights Project, where I happen to work now, after my second first year of law school. And I called them up I'm like, What are these questions? And they said, Actually, they're the result of a lawsuit because they used to ask a question, have you ever had any kind of mental health treatment ever? And they said, You have two choices. You can either sue and not get admitted to the bar till the lawsuit gets resolved or you could answer the questions and see what happens. And at that point, I want to get admitted to the bar. Let me just answer the questions. And so I get a letter saying congratulations for passing the bar, but you're not being recommended for admission.
Oh, my goodness.
And then what ended up happening was an extra year and a half before I got admitted. And conditions were put on my admission, that sounds familiar, where I had to stay in treatment. And I had to follow the recommendations of my psychiatrist. And I had to report to the statewide bar council every six months for nine years, that I was compliant with treatment. And my psychiatrist had to send them a letter every six months. And we did that for nine years.
Wow, I'm really taken aback by that. Even though I know a little bit of your story, you describing it in that fashion, feels so much like a period of criminal probation and supervision in the community. So, the parallels that we're drawing here between the criminal legal system and this admission to the bar is really astounding to me.
It was astounding to me to the more I've learned about the various parts of the criminal legal system, because I'm a civil lawyer, not a criminal lawyer. It is remarkable because for some reason, somebody thought that putting these kinds of conditions on people would help them. If you remember my testimony about the police accountability bill that passed this summer, I only talked about two sections of the bill, the mental health sections. And I said, I do not support this mental health screening of police officers, because basically what you're doing is you're doing what the bar examining committee did to me. As far as I'm concerned, that was discrimination, so I'm not going to support you discriminating against law enforcement. What they claim is, they want to make services available to law enforcement officers to deal with the post-traumatic stress and everything else. I'm like, then you do that. You don't do this screening thing that you mandate people to go to, because, frankly, anybody who goes to something like that, if you know how the system works, what answers to the questions to give, which means you're not going to find the people that you maybe need to find. And you're not showing people that it's safe to ask for help. And anybody who thinks that just putting social workers together with cops, when having mental health folks there, their only solution usually is, let's bring them to a hospital and lock them up in that box instead of the jail box, isn't an improvement. And I really wish that they had paid a little more attention to that. I think they changed mental health screening to behavioral health screening. And I told them the bar tried doing that too. They changed their questions to focus on conduct until they finally eliminated the questions. So in 2019 applicants to the Connecticut Bar no longer need to answer those questions. It was a lot of advocacy by a lot of people, who were not me, for years and really pushing because the deans of the law school realized those questions were stopping students from getting help. Justices of the Connecticut Supreme Court said this is not the way to do it. And the bar examining committee in 2010 acknowledged that the ADA existed. That only took 20 years. Change is slow, Connecticut. And then another nine years to get rid of the questions. But the questions are gone now. They tell me, Why do you keep talking about that? It's not like that anymore. I'm like, Because people need to know what it used to be, and how things were before they changed.
If we don't continue to talk about historical things, they can repeat themselves. And we can drift back to a place where we're stepping way back. It does need to continue to be talked about.
I think it's amazing that you had this experience where you've gone through arguably one of the toughest programs that talks about how do you protect people's rights. And then at the same time, our system believes that you have to be watched and supervised while you're doing that, as an independent source. That's got to play in your head through that whole time. What is going on here? And eventually that stops.
Yeah. And what happened - and I do remember this - this is nine years later, so we're talking 2005 2006 ish. The Connecticut Bar Association has their annual legal conference and there was a change in the person who was in charge of the statewide bar counsel's office. Because the previous person, if the letter from my psychiatrist was not there between the first and fifth of January and June, he would be sending me a letter between the sixth and the tenth. Where's the letter from your doctor? And I'm like I already asked them. I'll ask them to get it again. But they have other pages. And they have like real work to do not giving you your letter, but I will ask them and I will get it for you. He retires or gets a different job. New person comes in. And he was giving a presentation, talking about the fact that they were monitoring all these conditional admissions, which they really didn't think they needed to be doing. Because they thought a lot of people had been subjected to these conditions. Because one of the things is, they stamp everything privileged and confidential, because they clearly think that you're somehow ashamed and that you're not going to talk about it. Which backfired on them tremendously when it came to me, because I've been talking about it since day one, because I knew how ridiculous it was. And most people I talked to, they're like, aren't they lawyers? Don't they have to follow the ADA? Isn't this discrimination? And I'm like, Yes, except for the fact that the Department of Justice under George Bush's administration said that it wasn't. Because I did file a complaint and lost. But things change over time. That's why in 2019, the questions got removed. Because a new department of justice really had said, and we're taking cases against other state bar examining committees, saying that their inquiries were way too intrusive, violated the ADA. And Connecticut finally got with the program and change theirs.
Tell us about some wins that you've had over the years.
I get to lead an organization, Connecticut Legal Rights P roject, which is a place that I interned when I was in law school. So, I always tell people never know what's going to happen. All those internships matter. And to be able to have the opportunity to lead a group of people who are so dedicated to the mission of providing quality legal services to people who are eligible for mental health services from the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. These are folks who represent the people who are in our state psychiatric hospitals, to advocate in accordance with their Express Preferences, which is usually, get me out of this hospital and get me back to my life. When the whole systems are set up, where we don't have enough affordable, accessible housing, or we don't have enough investment in the community based system of mental health care, people who have really been held down and hurt by the system that is supposed to be there to help them. I think, sometimes I get challenged because folks from Demas will say, We serve 100,000 people or whatever the number is a year. I said, true. My office represents the 1000s, who are not happy with what you're doing. I said, Don't expect me to be talking about how awesome and great you are because my clients are the people who feel like you are not providing the services and supports that they want. And those are the people I represent. So that's what I focus on. It's like when can we get that fundamental change? And how can we make these systems better for everybody? And recognizing that a win is if we get a client survey back, and a client says, This was the first time somebody ever listened to me. Thank you for making sure my voice was heard. Sort of the whole idea behind your podcast is, people have voices. People have opinions. We're just not listening to the right people all the time. And people have great ideas about how these systems can change. And those are the people we really need to listen to.
I really appreciate your thoughts on that. What are your thoughts about treatment connected to the criminal legal system that is attached to conditions or convictions that happens in a forced way?
In my opinion, I don't think forced treatment is good, for a number of reasons. One, I think a lot of systems don't actually understand what it means to deprive somebody of autonomy and choice in a particular way. For me, I took medication for decades, and even after the conditions got removed, I was still taking medication until I decided not to. But you're ordering somebody to put something into their body, which may or may not actually accomplish the thing that you think it's supposed to, but also has a lot of other side effects that you don't even care about, because you don't even bother to ask about. And I wonder how much honesty happens in therapy when you're mandated do it. Maybe there are unique people who will only do something if they're forced to do it, and get out of it what they need to get out of it. But based on my experience and the experience of too many people, I know, one of the first things you figure out, once you figure out how the system works, is you figure out what you need to say, to get the result that you want. Which means you only say what people want to hear. Which means you're not really getting help, because you're going along with this system instead of doing the work that you may need to do on yourself. Anybody who took a real careful look at the affidavits I submitted when I was mandated by the bar to participate in therapy, will notice that there were times where what I attested to was that I was currently compliant with treatment. Which means that the day I signed it, I took the medication that I was told to take. What I never had to disclose in those things, were in that intervening six months, when I overdosed on the old pills to try to kill myself. The bar didn't care about that. What they cared about is that I sent in that letter between January and June, that said I was compliant with treatment. So, the moments where I was not compliant with treatment and care, that's what our systems really have to look at. What are you trying to accomplish? And are the methods you're using getting you, one year goal, and like how much damage are you doing in other ways to get there?
And this overlap between the mental health and the criminal justice system - Amber hit on force supervision - but then there's also civil commitment being used, specifically around people who have committed either violent crimes or sex offenses. And then getting civilly committed after they've completed their sentences because of course, we can't, I'm saying this sarcastically.
But we can't let these people back into society because of what they might do. Even though statistics would say they're not going to do anything.
I think that's a big problem. I think the other problem you have that I know there's been a lot of conversation about in Connecticut is the forensic mental health system, for people who are found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, what some people call insanity. I don't think people realize that, again, this is another system where the impact of that system on the people in it is not really that much known. And one of the things I've appreciated through the groups that we're involved in is that people are willing to have that conversation. We talk about reentry, for people who are coming out of corrections. We don't too much talk about reentry for people who are coming out of Whiting Forensic Hospital, or the Dutcher Service, because we've got this psychiatric Security Review Board that's six political appointees, with a mandate of protecting the public safety. And not looking at all or having to balance in or care about the rights of that person who's been found not criminally responsible, as a result of their mental disease or defect, and is sent to the hospital for treatment. I had a friend who was under their supervision, was actually in the community, had a job - so like contributing to society, in air quotes - but was under the supervision of the board. Because the lawyer had advised, do this NGRI instead of going to DOC, not realizing that it turns into this forever sentence. And again, when you talk about a treatment thing, my friend had talked to their psychiatrist about wanting to switch the time of day that they were taking their meds. Take them at night. And the psychiatrist had an obligation to report it to the system, which instead of discharging him from supervision, kept him longer. And my friend ended up dying by suicide. So I've had it in for the Psychiatric Security Review Board for a very long time. And now, I'm in a position to try to do something about it because I didn't know how to do anything about it for a very long time, but realizing the systems need to change.
You've taken so many negative things that have happened and you're doing so much positive work for it. I'm so glad you're here in Connecticut, and you're doing all this great work, and happy to know you. I just want to go back for one second and just add on. When I was between my arrest and my conviction and meeting with my attorney and saying to him, my brain didn't feel right, I couldn't understand why he wasn't using mental health as a defense. And he didn't. He used mitigating actors, and he got Character Reference letters and all that. But he never once mentioned mental health. And I realize from what I've learned from you over this time and from others, that he did me such a huge favor by not doing that.
You are absolutely right. People don't realize the reality and how it potentially never ends. That security review board, you talked about civil commitment after being done with a DLC, you can be committed to the board for the same length of time that you would have served in DOC, but they can just continue your commitment. Because they think like you said, can't possibly let this person out into society. Plus, I think it puts a lot of faith, that may be a bit misguided, in psychiatrists that they're able to predict risk for reoffending, or anything like that. And that's why I say really, these fundamental revaluations of what are these systems supposed to be doing? And are they accomplishing what they claim to?
I really am so happy to have you here today talking about these issues because they are so interrelated with the criminal legal system and coercion and control. Do you have resources, organizations, places that they can learn more about mental health as it relates to all of these things we've talked about today?
Absolutely. I have put together some documents that kind of bring together a lot of the things that I've been reading, and that I've been trying to learn about. There are fantastic groups out there who are really working within the Disability Justice space. Places like Project LETS, Fireweed Collective, The Wildflower Alliance. I can certainly share that information and you can put it in the show notes. And I'm happy to share that. Anybody who's on Twitter can feel free to follow me at Con Connection. And I think that's actually how we ended up connecting originally, is on social media.
I really think that there are a lot of people in a lot of different spaces who are having these conversations. And the more that we can figure out how to work with each other and be involved in those local decisions that are getting made about how do we approach these things differently. Every time people just say, Okay, if you don't want police responding to people in emotional distress, what do we do instead. And there are people who actually have already created alternatives, have been doing things in a different way, for decades. Toronto has a place called the Gerstein Center. They've been responding to people in crisis without cops for 30 years. So, different places are doing things differently. But what a lot of folks are really recognizing is that the coercion needs to stop. You need to meet people where they're at. You need to connect to them. You need to show you care about them. But trying to control them and trying to coerce them perpetuates other harms. And especially when the whole system operates within this framework that really is infected with systemic racism, ableism, every other kind of ism. It's the people who are most marginalized, who just get impacted negatively over and over again. So, if the people who have the power to make decisions would stop listening to the professionals who have created these systems that are already not working. Stop looking to them for the answers. Perhaps create the alternatives. You need to listen to the people who you've been ignoring, because they probably have, and there's no guarantee it's better. But I think one thing that's been most frustrating to me is, and I'm sure you see this, too, the what if. And none of us can control anything. And we like to pretend we can, but we can't. And so, why do our alternatives have to be perfect from the jump, when the existing systems are not doing a great job?
And nobody's questioning that. I just need somebody to explain that to me. That's the one thing I don't get, is why we have to be absolutely perfect and not dare make a mistake, when we literally have police who are killing people with disabilities over and over again. We're asking them to do something that's not in their wheelhouse. I think that's one thing that everybody agrees on. And is there any guarantee that these alternatives will be better or different? I don't know. But they can't be worse.
I just want to emphasize for people who are meeting you for the first time today through this podcast, anybody who knows you already knows, but for anybody who's just meeting you now, that you don't just talk about mental health disabilities, but you're an advocate for people with disabilities, of all types. Like, I saw you comment on the governor's use of the term KISS, Keep It Simple Stupid, and said, We don't want to use the word stupid and why that is. I follow you to learn, among things. So, there's just so much out there, you're advocating for people. And I appreciate that.
I have learned so much from you just from following you on Twitter and seeing you testify at various public hearings. You're always showing up. You're always there to be an advocate for people who have typically been ignored. So, I am thrilled that you joined us today. And I would encourage anybody out there listening to the podcast to follow Kathy on Twitter. She did share that. We'll put it in the podcast notes. And keep doing what you're doing, Kathy. We are huge fans.
I really appreciate the opportunity to have this wide ranging discussion about a lot of really important issues. And I think it may explain why some of us are really stressed out right now. Because if you are thinking about all these different things, and how all these different systems intersect, and you just want to see change. I think one of the things that's been so exciting for me is that some of this stuff is stuff I've been thinking about and working on for a really long time. And all the uprisings this summer really push things forward. And especially in Connecticut, because Connecticut changes so slow. There have been some radical changes in this state and I think we need more of those. And I look forward to working with anybody who's into doing that. I appreciate being invited here today. Thank you a lot.
All right. Thank you, Kathy. And until next time, Amber.
We'll see you next time.
You've been listening to Amplified Voices, a podcast lifting the experiences of people and families impacted by the criminal legal system. For more information, episodes, and podcast notes, visit amplifiedvoices.show.