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Vt. woman held in psych ward testifies at hearing

Friday - 1/31/2014, 8:00pm  ET

DAVE GRAM
Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) -- A week after emerging from an ordeal that began with her husband killing her son and himself and continued with her being placed in a psychiatric unit against her will, a Vermont woman said Friday that the state's mental health system needs big changes.

But Christina Schumacher -- whose estranged husband, 49-year-old Ludwig Schumacher, strangled their 14-year-old son, Gunnar, and then hanged himself Dec. 18 -- stopped short of saying she opposed involuntary hospitalization in all instances.

"I don't know. It's not my place to say," she said. "I'm not an expert."

The comments came a day after she testified before two state Senate committees that she went to a regular therapy appointment a day after learning of her family members' deaths and was taken from there to the psychiatric unit at Burlington's Fletcher Allen Health Care hospital.

When she arrived at her therapy appointment, Schumacher said, she was met not only by her therapist, but a second doctor, a clinic director and two guards, who took her to the locked psych unit. She was kept there for five weeks until a judge ordered her release.

"They'd all made the decision before I'd even arrived that they were going to check me in," Schumacher, 48, of Essex, told the Senate Health and Welfare and Judiciary committees.

"No one should ever have to endure what I've gone through. It has been hell," she told the lawmakers.

On Friday, she clarified her remarks by saying she was not prepared to call for an end to all involuntary hospitalizations. And both lawmakers who heard her, as well as Vermont Mental Health Commissioner Paul Dupre, said they weren't ready to go there, either.

Dupre said he couldn't comment specifically on Schumacher's case. But when someone is deemed in need of mental health treatment and won't be committed voluntarily, it is sometimes necessary to act against the person's wishes, he said.

"What are we going to do? Are we going to let somebody kill themselves, or harm themselves seriously?" Dupre asked. "Are you going to let someone harm somebody else?"

Schumacher said greater checks need to be put in place on the state's ability to involuntarily commit patients to mental health facilities.

Near the end of her stay at Fletcher Allen, Schumacher was visited by a lawyer for Disability Rights Vermont, a federally funded nonprofit that represents disabled Vermonters in their dealings with state-funded programs.

"Well guess what, I fought for my rights and I am out of there," she told lawmakers.

The committees are considering legislation that would streamline Vermont's process for involuntarily committing patients to mental health facilities and for forcing them to be medicated.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said she did not find Schumacher's testimony helpful. "I thought she would have been in favor of this bill, which would have given her a hearing earlier. So I don't really know what she was saying."

Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he thought Schumacher's testimony, which included multiple profanities, was "totally inappropriate."

The Burlington Free Press has reported extensively about Schumacher's case after she contacted the paper Dec. 30 and asked it to do so. The newspaper reported that she was found in need of in-patient treatment on Dec. 19.

Schumacher was released Jan. 24 on the order of Judge Kevin Griffin, who wrote that he "did not find, by clear and convincing evidence, that (Schumacher) was a person in need of treatment at the time of admission or application, nor a patient in need of further treatment at the time of the hearing."


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