Neighbor Was Following Her With Camera. Civil Courts Also Dealing With Mentally Ill Without Many Tools

(10-7-19) The neighbor asked the judge for a restraining order against the man who lived next door.

He was video taping everyone. Each time he stepped outside, he had a camera and recorded whoever crossed his path, including children. He became fixated on her. If she left her house, he appeared with his camera. She couldn’t go on a walk without being followed. Couldn’t visit the grocery store.

It got to be too much.  She suspected he was mentally ill. The judge did too. He issued a restraining order for one year.

The judge asked: How could this matter have been handled better?

Mark Gale, Criminal Justice Chair for the NAMI Los Angeles County Council, and I struggled to answer.

We were speaking at a judge’s conference in Palm Springs, California, arranged by San Bernardino Presiding Judge John P. Vander Feer. We were taking questions after telling the judges about jail diversion, Crisis Intervention Team training, and problem solving courts. Mark has a son with a serious mental illness who has been entangled in the criminal justice system but now is doing well. Mark is also one of the smartest and most knowledgeable criminal justice advocates I’ve met.

Other civil court judges in the audience quickly joined their fellow jurist in recounting their experiences in civil courts with individuals who were showing symptoms of a mental illness. (Usually, someone was seeking a restraining order against the ill person.)

Sadly, I found myself fumbling for answers.

Because my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, focuses on my son’s arrest and the ten months that I spent following persons from the jail in Miami, Florida, out onto the streets, I’d not investigated or even considered how many persons with mental problems might end up in civil courts, especially family courts, and the few tools available to civil court judges to help them.

So I turned the tables. I asked the judges attending the conference how many of them had received training about mental illnesses.  Only three hands were raised. Each of those judges said they had received training in other jobs before they had become judges. Meanwhile, every judge – civil and criminal – said they had daily encounters in their courts with individuals who they suspected were mentally ill.

Mark took this opportunity to push for Crisis Intervention Team training for judges.


In addition to those who end up in civil court suits, Mark talked passionately about another group of individuals who are ill but can’t benefit from the jail diversion/problem solving court/ system that we were pushing.

He couldn’t think of a worse hell, he told me, then to have an untreated serious mental illness and be sentenced to a long prison term after being convicted of murder or another crime that would guarantee years of incarceration.

What happens to the Unabomber, the Aurora shooter, the Tucson gunman or lesser infamous prisoners?

The answer is that many serve their sentences in solitary confinement and receive little or no treatment for years. Studies show that isolation worsens mental illnesses and, a new report has just found that solitary confinement quickens death.

Because advocates don’t want to increase stigma, the plight of these seriously mentally ill prisoners, who have committed heinous acts of violence, is rarely mentioned.

Mark is speaking out for these prisoners in California.


When pressed by the civil court judge, who’d issued a restraining order against the video taper, I asked if the neighbor had called a CIT officer. Perhaps, a CIT officer could have talked the video taper into seeking help.


It was the police who’d recommended the neighbor seek a restraining order after saying they couldn’t help.

How about contacting the local behavioral health office? I asked. The video taper needed help. Send a mobile crisis response team.

More sneers.

Talking to me later, a few judges explained there was little incentive for them to notify a local mental health provider. They could be accused of being biased if the video taper returned to their civil courts or he might have filed a complaint against them. While the man’s actions during court strongly suggested that he had a mental illness, his attorney argued his client had a right to video tape whomever he wished in public.  The judge couldn’t order a psychiatric evaluation. He could only rule on the petition.

How do these matters usually end?  I asked.

The most common scenario was that the video taper would violate the restraining order, be arrested, and his case would move into the criminal courts where a judge could seek a mental evaluation.

In short, until he broke the law, there was nothing that could be done.

In this specific case, that didn’t happen.

The man disappeared with his video camera.

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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.