By Robert Lanz, LCSW
I got a few e-mails asking what I thought about this situation not too far from where I live and what would I have done if I was somehow involved.
First of all, let me say this. Always have a healthy respect for the rules. That way when you have to bend or stretch or even break them you will do so in a manner that will have the best outcome even if you do get heat for it. What’s more important to you, some values or some lives? Some concepts or some outcomes?
Let’s start with the police because what they did or did not do sort of sums up my ideas about social work in general and social work in the ER specifically. Be friends with law enforcement. They may differ with you in terms of politics and social issues but in many ways, especially in the ER you are on the same team. I realized early on, maybe having been a probation officer, that working together despite differences is a good idea and I think any good social worker should be able to see themselves as change agents in that relationship. That said, from a legal point of view from what I’ve read, it looks like the sheriffs did the legal minimum when they went to evaluate Mr. Rodger. They talked to him and then they left because he didn’t come right out and say he was going to hurt someone or himself. Now if you have been following my blog, you will know that I seldom go into a patient’s room for an evaluation without reading the medical chart, talking to the physician and nurse and any friends or family available. That’s good social work. That’s good police work also. At that, they failed. If it had been me, or any good social worker, there would have been more time spent PRIOR to going to see the young man. They could have watched the videos. They could have run a gun check. They could have trolled social media.
If I was with the sheriffs I would have asked about the guns, especially if I knew he had recently purchased them. If he lied that would have some meaning. I would ask to see the guns. If he refused, he has a legal right to do so BUT I would then be more suspicious. I would have watched the videos and I would have asked more specifics about them. I would probably have used some lightweight threats as in:
“The things your family told me have me worried about your safety. Right now I’m thinking I ought to take you to the psychiatric hospital for further evaluation. Or you could try to talk me out of it. You do realize that if your are placed on a 5150 you will lose the right to have firearms. But if you go to the hospital for observation voluntarily, then if your aren’t a danger to yourself or others they can’t take your right to have firearms away. What’s your preference?”
No one has violated his rights. No one has forced him to do anything except make a choice. He can choose to close the door and refuse intervention. That would make me more suspicious. That’s called building a case.
In my city the ER social workers worked very closely with the local police. We were able, over the years, to have such a close bond that they hired social workers themselves. Social workers that rode around with them in their police cars, dealing with drugs and homelessness and child abuse and sexual assault and mental health evaluations and welfare checks as a team. I like to think that I played a part in the relationship that lead to the hiring of those police/social workers. They performed a necessary service that frequently made our job in the ER easier AND we had a lot more information than we otherwise would have to make evaluations like the one that was done on Mr. Rodger. Too bad the sheriffs didn’t have a social worker with them when they went out to do that evaluation. It might have turned out very different. They didn’t do anything illegal. They did the minimum requirement but a social worker would have been a lot more nuanced both in asking questioning and listening to answers than the deputies did. A good social worker might have been more manipulative in causing the young man to be more forthcoming.
As an ER social worker I did about 5,000 suicidal evaluations in my career and I never sent anyone home that committed suicide. Never. Not one. And to my knowledge I never sent anyone home that was a danger to others either. The other social workers in the ER could most likely say the same. Any of us could have done the legal minimum like the sheriff did and not suffered any legal blow back, hiding behind the “he didn’t meet criteria” excuse but to me, that isn’t enough. Apparently the sheriffs up there felt different. They will have to live with that.