Competency hearing snafu lands DMH commish in contempt

Published: May. 26, 2023 at 5:49 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A Vermont judge Friday held the state’s mental health commissioner in contempt of court after department staff didn’t obey a court-ordered mental health evaluation.

Vermont Mental Health Commissioner Emily Hawes was found in contempt of court in connection with a 2020 case where a man is alleged to have violated an abuse protection order.

“The judge is doing her best to try to get this competency examination and for reasons that are difficult to fathom, the department is absolutely resisting it at every turn, putting in more hours and money into this to resist it than it would cost to just simply get it done,” said Jerry O’Neill, a former U.S. attorney for Vermont and WCAX legal analyst.

Judge Alison Sheppard Arms’ order also states that the court moved to hold Hawes in contempt five months ago related to the case. It says the department cited several reasons for not doing the evaluation, including a backlog of health evaluations worsened by the pandemic, as well as a different interpretation of a state statute.

“The department takes the view that the language of the statute is, ‘We do it once and that’s it,’ and the judge reads the statute and says, ‘Wait a minute, no you don’t. If we need another examination, we get it,’” O’Neil said.

Hawes declined an interview request and officials issued a statement saying, “DMH did not receive a clear directive to complete the evaluation before the court sought to hold the commissioner in contempt. When DMH understood this order, the defendant was placed on a waitlist for an evaluation.”

Governor Phil Scott Friday said the commissioner’s job is not in jeopardy. “I have full faith in her. We just need to make sure that we do what we can to work together -- that’s been our approach for the last seven years and we’ll continue to do that,” he said.

But the judge says not working together is why this situation started in the first place. “The testimony produced in these hearings reveals a system that is at odds with this goal and demonstrates a fundamental breakdown in the partnership between our two entities,” the contempt order said.

After the order was filed, AHS Secretary Jenney Samuelson said the evaluation has been ordered, and the process is moving along.

If the department does not comply, Commissioner Hawes will be fined $3,000.