It may be easy to to ask after the fact why no one intervened before a pregnant South Carolina woman drove a minivan carrying her three young children into the Florida surf on Tuesday.
But mental health experts say the answer is far from simple, thanks to a patchwork of state laws regarding involuntary commitment, uneven enforcement, subjective judgment — and the need to protect the civil rights of everyone, even the mentally ill.
“There is no law in this country against being crazy,” said Laurence Miller, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Boca Raton, Fla. “If somebody is delusional and even flagrantly psychotic, unless they’re an imminent danger to themselves or others, there’s nothing anybody can do.”
Ebony Wilkerson, 32, of Cross, S.C., was hospitalized for a mental health evaluation Thursday, two days after she nearly submerged herself and her three children, ages 3, 9 and 10, in the ocean at Daytona Beach.
Volusia County Sheriff’s Office officials told the Associated Press that Wilkerson was being evaluated under Florida’s Baker Act, a law that allows authorities to involuntarily take people into custody if they seem to be a threat to themselves and others.
But she didn’t meet the standards of that law on Tuesday, two hours before she headed to the ocean, when police officers stopped Wilkerson after her sister had called to say the woman was talking about demons. Officers had determined that Wilkerson was lucid –- and they let her go.
“There is no law in this country against being crazy. If somebody is delusional and even flagrantly psychotic, unless they’re an imminent danger to themselves or others, there’s nothing anybody can do.”
That points to the difficulty of predicting when mentally ill — even delusional — people pose a danger because there’s no shared treatment standard across the U.S., said Doris Fuller, the executive director of Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit agency focused on the issue.
Laws for involuntary commitment vary widely from state to state and even when there are strong laws, some jurisdictions simply don’t follow them, Fuller said. And if there are strong laws and a willingness to enforce them, there may be a lack of psychiatric beds for evaluation and treatment.
Often, it takes a crime or a tragedy — or both — to attract necessary resources to the mentally ill.
“It’s a terrible, terrible thing that people have to get involved in the criminal justice system before they get what they needed all along,” Fuller said.
Miller, the psychologist, cautioned against blaming police for not predicting that Wilkerson would turn dangerous.
“Even a trained mental health professional would have a hard time,” he said. “I have no way of knowing with a crystal ball an hour later that the mother is going to drive into the ocean.”
In Wilkerson’s case, she apparently was fleeing apparent domestic abuse after two incidents in South Carolina, according to a statement from her sister, Jessica Harrell. When police stopped Wilkerson, she told officers that she was headed to a shelter because she was afraid of her husband, according to Ben Johnson, the Volusia County Sheriff.
The desperation of domestic violence, paired with the delusions of mental illness, likely contributed to Wilkerson’s decision to turn her black Honda Odyssey off the Daytona Beach dunes and into the sea, said Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“It may have felt to her like it was better to take the children with her than leaving them to abuse,” Smith said.
In the end, passersby dove into the water to rescue Wilkerson and her children, who were not seriously harmed.
On Thursday, Wilkerson’s family released a statement saying she was “receiving care for her multiple health issues.” They expressed their gratitude to the rescuers and the community.
“They are asking for your prayers as they sort out the issues involved in this matter,” the statement said. “It is their hope that their privacy is respected to allow the healing process to begin.”
First published March 6 2014, 4:37 PM