A Girl With An Untreated Mental Illness and a Sexual Offender: Who Gets Committed?

I received a desperate email this week from a father who explained that his daughter has a serious mental disorder but she doesn’t believe anything is wrong with her and consequently will not seek any help. Last week, she assualted him.

Finally, he thought, his daughter had reached a point where he could get her involuntarily committed into a hospital where she could get treatment.  But at her hearing, a special justice ruled that the woman did not meet Virginia’s criteria for involuntary commitment. Even though the woman was psychotic and had attacked her father, the special justice would not involuntarily commit her to a hospital.

“What’s it going to take for me to get my daughter help?” the father asked in his email. “Does she have to kill me?”

I should mention that the father lives in Fairfax County, Virginia, where I also reside. I should also mention that the three special justices, who oversee involuntary commitments here, have a well-deserved reputation in our state for being reluctant to force anyone into treatment.

Contrast that father’s experience with what happened to another Virginia resident who also wrote to me this week. He complained that he had been involuntarily committed to a state facility even though he has never been diagnosed with a mental illness. 

The writer is confined at the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation, a locked facility in rural Southwesten Virginia that was built to  warehouse sexual offenders. The letter writer explained that he was convicted of having sexual intercourse with his under-age step daughter. He was sent to a state prison to do his time, but just before he completed his sentence, he was whisked away to the VCBR because state officials said he continued to poise a threat to the community and shouldn’t be released.

“I do not know of a single person who has been committed to VCBR who has ever been sent home,” he wrote. He claimed that Virginia’s involuntary commitment statutes were simply being used to keep sexual predators locked up indefinitely.

The writer said he had never been diagnosed with a mental disorder. He also claimed that he did not fit the stereotype of a sexual predator, having never been convicted of a crime before he was found guilty of having sex with his step-daughter. He didn’t disclose in his letter how old she was at the time.

At the request of the Chief Justice of Virginia’s Supreme Court, I served on a task force that helped rewrite our state’s commitment laws based on our task force’s recommendations.

Here is what the old law required in order to have someone involuntary committed:

“…if the judge or special justice finds by clear and convincing evidence that
(i) the person presents an imminent danger to himself or others as a result of
mental illness OR has been proven to be so seriously mentally ill as to be
substantially unable to care for himself and . . .”

Here is the new commitment criteria:

“…a special justice finds by clear and convincing evidence that
(a) the person has a mental illness and there is a substantial likelihood that,
as a result of mental illness, the person will, in the near future,
(1) cause serious physical harm to himself or others as evidenced by
recent behavior causing, attempting, or threatening harm and other
relevant information, if any, OR
(2) suffer serious harm due to his lack of capacity to protect himself
from harm or to provide for his basic human needs…”

I will not pretend to know all of the facts in either of these incidents, but what struck me when I got the father’s desperate email and the prisoner’s angry letter  is how loosely our involuntary commitment statute can be interpreted. A Fairfax County special justice, who has a history of refusing to order involuntary commitment, can claim that a woman who assaults her father is not dangerous. While state officials can use that same statute to lock a sexual offender even though he reportedly has never been diagnosed with a mental disorder.

The daughter who could benefit from treatment is turned away as sick as ever. The prisoner, who some would argue cannot be helped with treatment and has not been diagnosed, is committed.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. As an advocate, author and lecturers on mental health issues, a stories like this play out daily in this country and nothing changes.I am still waiting for the National Dialogue on Mental illness that was proposed after the Tuscon shootings.

  2. Agreed.  Having to plead with one of those 3 Fairfax County special justices again is my worst nightmare.  The magistrate was more than helpful when we sought an ECO, but then the mental health care providers in the ER can use their own loose interpretation of the statute.  There simply has to be a better way. 

  3. you are on to something big. A larger and larger percentage of hospital beds are going to SVPs, not SMI. This is the result of  Kendricks vs. Kansas, in which mental illness commitment law was recently modified to apply to aquittees with a ‘mental abnormality’, a “diagnosis” that did not previously exist.  

  4. Justanobserver says

     i can tell you with the utmost certainty many have been sent home…and most are back within months…..parole violations?…most of them that return, but a few have re-offended, I can agree that many have served their time and believe they find some benefit in their treatment, but there are many…TOO many that cannot control their indulgences, that cannot keep their eyes forward do what they need to do to get through the program..people whom cannot control their urges….if they cant keep it together there, in a protected environment, with multiple support systems and not re-offend ,while under direct supervision, then they should not be released to the public with no supervision  they belong there