Outtake: The Politics of Paperwork (Appendix B)

The first page of my court papers (Click on photo for larger view.)

I expected barriers in getting the documents I needed for my work, but, in the end, the process was fairly painless, requiring some minor fees, and in the case of the court documents, showing my U.S. passport (which shows my full name) to the Sioux City courthouse to prove my identity, given the confidential nature of my records. The current clerks and officials at the Woodbury County Courthouse and Cherokee Mental Health Institute were extremely courteous and prompt in providing me with the documents that I needed. Given my experience 35 years ago, this was a pleasant surprise.

I assumed that the court documents and hospital records would offer “profound” formal descriptions and carefully prepared insights about my case and incarceration. In short, “cover your ass” stuff.

The reality: the court papers are harried intake sheets, sloppily handwritten and prepared, suggesting an impatience to dispose quickly of this problematic misbehaving, drugged-out, troubled child who was causing difficulty for the court system.

The court papers total 10 pages, the two “Mental Health Institute, Cherokee, Iowa, Subsequent History” pages essentially blank except for short notations regarding patient number, reason for commitment, and eventual discharge. The rest of the papers, thrown together willy nilly, were filled with Swiss cheese holes; a good lawyer, not available to me, could have taken the legal system to task and won “acquittal” for me.

The hospital records, covering two months, total 12 pages: initial summary, mental status examination, social history report, psychological testing, and final summary. Nothing profound at all, nothing bewildering to report–no evidence of my chronic bursts of anger, adolescent pranks, and unwillingness to follow hospital rules.

Why should I have been surprised at the routine tone of these documents? For were not their preponderance of importance only in my own mind? Wasn’t I just another quasi-juvenile case clogging the judicial system with the minutiae of growing up?

* * * * *

Jennifer, the girl, had been home from California about a month. She realized immediately that coming back to Sioux City (at her grandparents’ prodding) had been a colossal mistake, a trick to lure her back on their turf. They must have realized that controlling the girl would be more difficult in Hollywood, California, where the girl had friends and places to hide.

She decided to leave Sioux City and take the Greyhound bus to York, Pennsylvania, close to where Jeffrey Brown lived. She liked Jeff–he had been a good friend in the short time they had known each other–and she had been disappointed when he left L.A. to spend Christmas with his family. She could not understand the kind of loneliness that comes when a young man is close to his family and lives far away from them.

Before he left, he tried explaining his ties to his family, how their luring him back to Pennsylvania was not a trick, but a calling, a yearning–a worried, but profound love; he was a wanted, cherished child, not an afterthought. He was not a child to be taken in because one had no choice but to care for (for all intents and purposes) a motherless child. His mother Jeanette yearned for her oldest child in a way that Jennifer could never conceive. In later letters, Jeanette would reveal how Jeff’s absence had caused her terrible psychological and physical pain–an inability to eat or sleep until her son was safely home.

Jennifer wondered if her grandparents felt that way about her and if her anger and obsession with running away caused them great pain and agony because they felt a hole in their lives with her absence, or was it simply guilt that reached back to the girl’s mother’s generation, her problematic childhood, and current alcoholism? Jennifer would never know.

Still, Harley and Olive Semple did not want Jennifer to leave Sioux City; they wanted her to stay, get psychological counseling, train to become a dental hygienist, settle in Sioux City, get married in the Catholic Church, have children, attend Mass every Sunday and Holy Day, and not make waves or embarrass them in any way, especially in front of their friends and family.

Jennifer had no idea what she wanted, only that it didn’t exist in Sioux City and did not include dental hygienist training. Perhaps a new life in York, Pennsylvania, with Jeff Brown would satisfy that wanderlust, that obsession to somehow escape a mundane life in Sioux City. She had no idea what she would do in York–or even exactly where York was located on the map–or how Jeff Brown really felt about her invading Pennsylvania, but she would figure out details later.

Jennifer went to the downtown bus depot and bought a one-way ticket to York.

Cost: $43.00.

She carried a small travel bag with her, which held her diary from high school and a few letters from Jeff and other friends. If she had a change of clothes, she doesn’t remember–those items seemed minuscule, obtainable anywhere.

She does remember her grandfather following her around town to the bus depot, hiding behind department store columns, his raincoat and hat with feather in brim giving him an Inspector Clouseau look. Did he really believe that he remained unseen?

After Jennifer bought her ticket, Harley Semple confronted her, and, with surprising strength for a 68-year-old man, held her arms so that she couldn’t move without pushing him to the floor.

She often wondered how her life might have changed had she pushed her grandfather away and, without looking back, boarded that bus. Would he have been injured, or, worse yet, died from his fall (instead of dying five years later from an ailment resembling Lou Gehrig’s disease)? Would she have ended up in Cherokee anyway or in jail, perhaps, charged with murder?

Something in the girl–a form of love, maybe–stopped her from pushing her grandfather away and breaking for freedom.

Instead, she said, “Let’s see what the police have to say.” She had nothing to fear, after all; she was of age and, legally, had done nothing wrong. Surely, when she told the police that she was now grown up and quit using drugs, they would let her go. They had no reason to keep her, right?

As she stepped into the police station, walking distance from the bus depot, she immediately realized her mistake.

In 1969 Sioux City, there was no sympathy for an 18-year-old girl who had admitted to using LSD, uppers, and marijuana, then vaguely known as exotic, frightening drugs used only by beatniks and bums. She was simply viewed as incorrigible and disobedient, and, therefore, in the wrong. As Jennifer explained her situation to Opal Casey, the police matron in charge of Woodbury County juvenile delinquents, the girl felt that something unpleasant was about to transpire. The law would not be on her side.

The significant Supreme Court decisions limiting involuntary commitment would not be decided until Humphrey v. Cady, 405 U.S. 504, 509 (1972), which ruled involuntary civil commitment to a mental institution as “a massive curtailment to liberty,” and O’Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563, 574 (1975), which ruled that there is “no Constitutional basis for confining such [mentally ill] persons involuntarily if they are dangerous to no one and can live safely in freedom” and that the presence of mental illness “does not disqualify a person from preferring his home to the comforts of an institution”--too late for the girl.

Her only protection, then, was Specht v. Patterson, 386 U.S. 605, 608 (1967), which offered legal protection at the mercy of the court system itself: “...involuntary commitment to a mental hospital, like involuntary confinement of an individual for any reason, is a deprivation of liberty which the State cannot accomplish without due process of law.” Even a neophyte can see how a lower court might interpret that Supreme Court decision to fit its agenda.

But, back then, the girl knew nothing of any Supreme Court decisions that tried to protect her rights.

At the police station and during the conversation with the police matron aligning against the girl’s constitutional right to freedom, the girl sunk into despair. After that, her actual memory betrays. A look at the girl’s court documents reveals that Opal Casey, with the help of Harley Semple, filled out an information sheet, requesting the court to commit Jennifer L. Semple to the Cherokee Mental Health Institute. This form contained the basic information one would expect: name, address, phone number, employment, parents’ names, etc. and the following passage:

To the honorable Commissioners of Hospitalization, Woodbury County, Iowa. Request Commitment [of Jennifer L. Semple] to M.H.I. [Mental Health Institute]. Transportation by Sheriff. Your Informant respectfully represents that the above named person now in said County is afflicted with Mental Illness and a fit subject for custody and treatment in the Mental Health Institute at Cherokee as he/she therefore asks that the necessary steps be taken to investigate his/her condition as the law provides in such cases [signed] Opal Casey, Informant, State of Iowa, Woodbury County.

Tellingly, the information sheet continues,

I, the undersigned, do solemnly swear that the matters and things alleged in the above information to which my name is affixed, are true as stated, each and all, as I verily believe. [signed] Harley Semple Opal Casey, Informant [the grandparents’ address and phone number remain intact]. Subscribed and sworn to before me by Harley Semple Opal Casey, the affiant, this 19th day of Feb., 1969. WITNESS my hand and official seal the date last named. [signed] Maurice Flanagan, Clerk, By [Deputy clerk line left blank].
All of her life, the girl, now a middle-aged woman, wondered who was responsible for committing her. Her grandparents adamantly denied signing the paperwork, and she found out the truth, albeit still somewhat ambiguous, on August 23, 2004, when she received photocopies of her court records.

The crossed out name of her grandfather suggests that he desperately wanted help for his granddaughter but (1) did not want to be seen as “the bad guy” by acting as the official informant, or (2) he could not afford to pay the hospital bill.

Perhaps both reasons are valid.

Imagined conversation between Harley Semple and Opal Casey as she fills out the paperwork:

H.S. –Jennifer needs help, I’m afraid. I don’t know what to do.

O.C. –You could commit her to Cherokee for observation.

H.S. –Seems rather drastic, but what choice do I have? She’s so angry, and the drugs...she scares me.

O.C.(Sighing as she scribbles in his name on the information form.) –These kids today... (Shakes her head.) Don’t know what’s good for them, what with all these strange drugs and immoral ways. What is the world coming to, anyway?

H.S. (Scratching his forehead.) –If she gets wind of this, she’ll despise me...

O.C. –You’re doing the right thing.

H.S. –I don’t know if I can do this. (Pauses.) Who’s going to pay for this, anyway?

O.C. (Taps her pen.) –I’m afraid you’ll be financially responsible, Mr. Semple.

H.S. (Wringing his hands.) –I don’t know. We can’t afford hospital bills; my wife and I are on Social Security and barely making it now. This would kill us financially.

O.C. (Takes in a deep breath and sighs.) I can’t tell you what to do here. It’s your decision.

H.S. (Scratches his chin.) –Can’t you sign as informant?

O.C. (She sets down her pen and steeples her hands.) –I don’t know the girl. I see she needs help, but, to what extent, I can’t say for sure. It’s really your word against hers.

H.S. (Places his face in his hands.) –Oh, God, I’d rather die than betray her. (Pauses, as if he’s formulating a thought.) It’s not the money, really. If I thought committing Jennifer would help, I’d do it in a blink and worry about the money later. But she doesn’t trust me as it is; this would kill anything between us.

O.C. (Picks up her pen again and scratches out “Harley Semple,” and scribbles in her own name) –This is between us, Mr. Semple.

H.S. (Brushes his hair back with his hand.) –Thank you.

Thus, with the scratch of a pen, the girl’s grandfather acceded both financial and legal responsibility to Woodbury County, Iowa, a decision that probably dogged this decent man to the end of his days.

* * * * *

A hearing was held on February 19,1969, to determine the mental state of the girl. The court appointed one Clay H. Jensen, Esquire, as the attorney representing the girl’s interest. Dr. C.F. Berkstresser, “a Regular Practicing Physician,” was appointed/ordered to examine the girl to determine her mental state. The “Appointment of Physician–Mental Illness” form ordered the physician

to visit or see said person and to make a personal examination touching the truth of the allegations [of mental illness] of said information and touching her actual condition.

[The physician] will therefore proceed at once to make such examination and forthwith report thereon to said Commission at this office as the law requires in such cases...

The girl has no memory of a Sioux City physician examining her, but she can’t discount the possibility entirely. She does suspect that if an examination was done, it was cursory–that the paperwork was filled out without an extensive and fair examination.

But the form, signed by Dr. Berkstresser, states,

GENTLEMEN: In pursuance of your appointment and the accompanying instructions under date of 2/19/69, I have this day seen the person named in said paper as mentally ill, and have made a personal examination in her case, as required by law, and I hereby certify that in my judgment said person is mentally ill, and a fit subject for custody and treatment in the Mental Health Institute. I also certify that I have stated correctly the answers I have obtained from the best sources within my knowledge, and from my own observation, to the questions furnished, which questions, with answers thereto are hereby are hereto appended. WITNESS my hand this 19th day of Feb. 1969, [Signed] C.F. Berkstresser, M.D.

In a careless, sloppy hand, Dr. Berkstresser filled out a questionnaire, which included the following questions and answers:
Q. Relatives or ancestors mentally ill or afflicted?

A. No [Nothing about the girl’s alcoholic mother].

Q. Was patient ever addicted to intemperance in any form?

A. No.

Q. Alleged cause of mental illness?

A. Was in California; Past 6 months. 2-3 trys [sic] of Pot per week for 2-3 weeks, “Bennies,” has been here in Sioux City 6 weeks. Yesterday went to police & ask for help–to prove her adoption. Grandparents Father & Mother. That they no longer have anything to say about what she does.

Q. Number of attacks?

A. 7.

Q. Duration of attack?

A. 6 months.

Q. Previous attacks, date and duration?

A. & 2 months here.

Q. Treatment, if any, with PARTICULARS AND EFFECT?

A. No.

Q. When were the first symptoms of this attack manifested, and in what way?

A. When her grandparents brought her back at the rooming house request. [St. Francis DePaul]

Q. Does the disease appear to be increasing, decreasing, or stationary?

A. [None]

Q. Is the disease variable and are there rational intervals? If so, do they occur at regular periods?

A. [Scratched out and unintelligible]

Q. On what subjects and in what way is derangement now manifested? State Fully.

A. Incorrigible. Feels everyone except the hippies are against her.

Q. Has the patient shown a disposition to injure others?

A. No. [The O’Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563, 574 (1975) Supreme Court ruling would have stopped the commitment process here.]

Q. Has suicide ever been attempted?

A. No. [O’Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563, 574 (1975) applicable here, too.]

Q. If so, in what way? Is the propensity now active?

A. [Not applicable]

Q. Is there a disposition to filthy habits, destruction of clothing, breaking of glass, etc.?

A. No.

Q. Did the patient manifest any peculiarities of temper, habits, dispositions or pursuits before the accession of the disease?

A. No.

Q. Any predominant passion, religious impressions, etc.?

A. No.

Q. Has the patient been subject to any bodily disease, epilepsy, suppressed eruptions, discharges of sores, or ever had any injury of the head?

A. No.

Q. Has restraint or confinement been employed? If so, what kind and how long?

A. No.

Q. Previous hospital treatment?

A. No.

Q. Condition when discharged?

A. No.

Q. Character or type of mental illness?

A. Paranoid Reaction. Everyone is against her.

Q. Habits?

A. Poor. [Contradictory?]

Q. Physical condition?

A. Good.

Q. State any other matter supposed to have a bearing on the case.

A. No. [Could be just a scribble.]

Based on the profound information gleaned from the physician’s “examination,” the following order was entered:

Physician’s Designation of Authority

I, the undersigned Physician appointed in the within case, by authority of Section 229.11 of the code, do hereby designate and authorize Co. Sheriff to convey the within named patient to the Mental Health Institute at Cherokee and deliver him/her to the Superintendent thereof, securing his receipt for such delivery as required by Code Sec. 229.11. [Signed] C.F. Berkstresser, M.D.

The hearing. The girl knew immediately that the legal deck was stacked against her, her fate having been determined the minute Opal Casey scratched out her grandfather’s name and scribbled in her own.

Her memory is vague, but she does remember sitting in a dark room, around a mahogany or walnut conference table, at least a dozen pair of eyes on her, this incorrigible girl now overpowered by the system that has just accused her of being anti-establishment and disobedient.

“Why bother?” she thought as her so-called lawyer, Mr. Clay H. Jensen, stared at her with naked disapproval, his watery blue eyes disgusted with this incorrigible girl who would dare to question authority. An elderly man (as she recalls) with white hair and wrinkles, he belonged to a generation born in the previous century, so far removed from her carefree, swinging 1960's--his signed statement, then, was surely ironic:

I, CLAY H. JENSEN, attorney, appeared on behalf of subject patient [Signed] Clay H. Jensen.

Various people, including her lawyer, asked some silly geography questions, particularly interested in knowing what states one must travel through to get to Pennsylvania.

They also asked about past drug use; Jennifer answered truthfully. When they asked if she currently used, she answered “no,” also the truth.

However, “no” did not fit the parameters of the paperwork.

The court determined that the girl should go to Cherokee Mental Health Institute for screening. Diagnosis: Mental Illness.

So what might one surmise from the legal paperwork?

Perhaps if the girl had competent legal representation, her counsel would have blasted holes through the paperwork, and Jennifer would have avoided two months of involuntary confinement.

But she was young, and even as she rebelled on one level, she still believed in absolutes, the power of the establishment and her own helplessness against it.

The system and its workers were older and more experienced than she, so they were able to impose on her their will by manipulating the law to fit what they believed what was right for the girl and all young people who would buck social norms.

The commitment laws of the time could not protect her; once a court deemed a person unfit, she could essentially be held hostage in a mental institution indefinitely. Moreover, the doctors, psychologists, and social workers could take their own sweet time conducting their tests on the patient.

The 1972 and 1975 Supreme Court decisions came too late for her.


"The Politics of Paperwork" is copyright 2008, by Jennifer Semple Siegel

This text may not be republished or reposted without permission.


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