Double homicide brings concerns about mental health care to the forefront

Monday, March 30, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:32 a.m. CDT, Monday, March 30, 2009

SPRINGFIELD — Dan Andrews' family knows how hard it can be to get help for a loved one who might have a mental illness.

Less than a month after they checked him into a hospital because they were afraid he might kill someone, Andrews was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of armed criminal action for allegedly stabbing to death his wife, Mary Burchell, 24, and 9-month-old son, Tayler Andrews.

He is in the Douglas County Jail without bond.

"I knew if my son didn't get the medical attention he needed that something bad was going to happen and he may kill people, or several people," his father, Starlin Andrews, said the day of the slayings.

But both times Dan Andrews was admitted to a facility for a mental health evaluation, the Ava man was released despite the family's protest.

Hospitals, law enforcement officials and private citizens can request a person be held against their will for up to 96 hours if the person appears to be a threat to themselves or others.

The first step family members should take if they fear a loved one might harm themselves or others is call the police or sheriff's department, said Dewayne Long, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Southwest Missouri, which is located in Springfield.

"I would always call police," he said. "Then police make a determination of what to do."

Which is what Andrews' family did.

"He (Andrews' father) did exactly what he was supposed to do," Long said.

Law enforcement officers check the person's well-being and evaluate whether he or she might be a threat to themselves or others, Long explained.

The problem sometimes is that law enforcement officials have to see the person exhibiting behavior that would put themselves or others in danger, said Shalaine Periman, director of Crisis Services at Burrell Behavioral Health Center.

In the case of Dan Andrews, the Douglas County Sheriff's Department took him to a hospital in West Plains, his family said, but he was released after four days.

"It's the other end of the system that broke down," Long said. "The needs that exist aren't necessarily available because of the lack of funding."

The lack of funding might mean a facility doesn't have the staff or the beds to care for the person, he added.

Long-term commitments past the 96-hour hold must be requested by a psychiatrist and approved by a judge, Periman said.

Periman said every facility that receives involuntary commitments has a slightly different set of guidelines.

Those guidelines are set by the facility, not state statutes, she added. The state's privacy laws regarding medical records has hindered communication between family members, patients and medical staff, in Periman's opinion.

"Every hospital is scared to death of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act)," she said.

If police don't believe there's enough evidence to take the person to the facility, any adult can petition the local probate court to have the person detained if a judge finds probable cause to order the commitment, Long explained.

The person is then taken to a hospital or mental health facility for evaluation.

"There is a process where you can go to an attorney and get an affidavit and have the person retained for 96 hours," Long said. "That's a short-term try to get them help if they're not willing to go themselves and police aren't willing to take them."

In addition to calling law enforcement authorities, crisis hot lines can be helpful for family members, Long said.

The local NAMI hot line is more for help and support rather than emergencies, but the Burrell Crisis hot line can be called 24 hours a day when there's immediate concern and urgent action is needed, he said.

Periman urges families to seek help long before an emergency situation arises.

"It's important for family members to not wait until it's so imminent that the only intervention is police," she said. "When you start seeing something's not right, that's when to call."

She said all parts of the state are required to have a mental health hot line. Crisis hot line workers can also assist families in getting a loved one involuntary committed, she said.

"I assist at least one family a week through the involuntary commitment process," Periman said.

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Charles Dudley Jr March 30, 2009 | 3:48 a.m.

These types of incidents are more common that most people realize. If you have a friend with a mental illness and they seem in distress or not acting right ask them if they are feeling and doing ok. Offer a helping hand to them and offer to hear them out. Ask them if they are seeing their doctors and getting enough sleep. It could mean the entire world to that person and those around them.

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