NH's commitment laws have come a long way since Pavlick case a half-century ago
Many in New Hampshire asked that question after two recent attacks by patients awaiting mental health treatment at Elliot Hospital's emergency department.
Alexander de Nesnera is associate medical director at New Hampshire Hospital and an associate professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine. Earlier this month, Gov. Maggie Hassan appointed him to a team looking into the state's "deeply strained mental health system," in light of the recent hospital attacks in Manchester.
But it was not in place in 1960, when Richard Paul Pavlick of Belmont was charged with threatening Kennedy's life.
Authorities had dropped the criminal charges in 1964, but Pavlick was committed to the state hospital.
De Nesnera has been researching the history of New Hampshire's commitment laws. What happened to Pavlick would not happen today - but it was common back then, he said.
Then, patients were admitted to the state hospital either by judicial order or with the consent of hospital trustees at the request of certain individuals, including relatives, guardians, the board of selectmen, chief of police, or county commissioners, de Nesnera said.
Officials told Egan that an "arrangement" had been made that if Pavlick were ever brought to New Hampshire to face charges and those charges were dismissed, that he would then be committed. The presiding judge was never informed of that "arrangement."
In 1987, lawmakers passed a statute that created rules for the involuntary commitment of individuals, he said.
Many patients do well in that time period, de Nesnera said, and are discharged.
In Pavlick's day, de Nesnera said, there were no hearings scheduled to review such cases. "The only way that person could be discharged was by a judicial order."
To keep someone at the state hospital, de Nesnera said, you have to prove he is both mentally ill and dangerous. And even if someone is involuntarily committed, he can't be treated against his will, he added.
None of these protections were available to Richard Pavlick. But the late William Loeb, publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, argued they should have been.
"The newspaper is not pro-Pavlick. It is not against Pavlick. We are simply saying that the way this old gentleman, without any relatives and apparently few friends, has been shunted around the country for six long years without ever having his day in court is a disgraceful violation of HIS civil rights and would be an equally disgraceful violation if any OTHER individual had been so treated."
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