Special Reports

Tacoma mother forced to sue for medical records of mentally ill son

Suppose your mentally ill son killed your husband with a hatchet.

You might want to know whether anyone involved in his treatment screwed up beforehand. That’s what Kim Meline would like to know — but privacy laws stop anyone from telling her. Her only recourse: file a lawsuit.

Last October, Meline’s son, Jonathan, admitted to killing his father, Robert, in the family’s Tacoma home.

Earlier this month, Jonathan was found competent to stand trial on charges of first-degree murder.

Last week, Kim Meline sued her son – an unusual legal prelude to a long-term quest for answers.

Jonathan Meline, 29, had a history of mental illness. In January 2012, he was released from Western State Hospital, where he had been committed following an earlier charge of vehicular assault. Prosecutors were forced to dismiss the earlier charge when Meline was found incompetent to stand trial.

The dismissal led to eventual release. Jonathan came home. His parents had no access to his treatment records, no legal way to find out that Jonathan’s fixed delusions were still active, that his thoughts of killing his parents had never ceased.

When an ex-convict on state community supervision commits a violent crime, it’s easy to track his prior movements in the public record. It’s easy to see whether he skipped meetings with his community corrections officer. It’s easy to see whether he failed drug tests or misbehaved in some way.

When a patient with a mental illness commits a violent crime, tracking is far harder — almost impossible. Privacy laws governing mental-health records cover all the footsteps.

Kim Meline’s attorneys, Nathan Roberts and Jack Connelly, say the suit filed last week represents a necessary step on the path toward the truth. Why was Jonathan discharged from Western State? How did the experts who examined him make that decision?

“Basically, we’re in an investigative mode,” Roberts said. “This process is in the early stages.”

Connelly and Roberts handled a similar case in King County several years ago. In 2006, Maritza Dowe, an administrative assistant at a Seattle public health clinic, was assaulted, stabbed and blinded by a woman with schizophrenia and a history of violent acts.

The woman, Marilyn Walker, was charged with attempted murder and later found not guilty by reason of insanity. She had been released from Western State prior to the attack on Dowe.

Dowe’s subsequent lawsuit sought records of Walker’s mental-health treatment at Western State and other facilities. In early court filings, state attorneys objected to the release of any treatment records, citing privacy laws.

Ultimately, those arguments fell short; Dowe’s lawsuit ended with a $5 million settlement.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486