Family Member Arrested
The arrest of a family member or friend can be very upsetting. Trying to figure out what to do and where to start can feel overwhelming. Here are some steps to take to help your loved one through the situation.
If you don’t know which jail your loved one is being held in you can use an online inmate locator.
If your family member requires medication, he should inform the jail staff. If he has not informed the jail staff, you should ask his psychiatrist to contact them. Although there’s no privacy law restricting a medical professional from sharing information with jail staff, some will refuse. If that happens, you should make contact with your family member’s doctor. It is best to do this in writing and then follow up with a phone call. This will ensure a written record of your request. Your request should be to the point and include:
Your loved one’s diagnosis
The type of medication
Contact information for their doctor
Your contact information
Is Your Family Member Being Mistreated?
If your family member is being mistreated in jail, you should start by contacting your state’s protection and advocacy agency, which is responsible for protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities. You can also contact South Carolina’s affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Going to Court
The arrest of a family member may mean he or she needs to appear in court. Knowing what to expect can help you provide the most support for your loved one and hopefully lead to the best outcome.
Working with an Attorney
Most people charged with crimes are assigned a public defender. Here is what you should do:
Make contact with the attorney. This can be hard as attorneys are often in court all day, so call early in the morning or during lunch. If you can’t reach her, call her office and ask for a fax number or email address.
Attend the initial hearing. Introduce yourself to the public defender. Be brief, polite, and thank him. Let them know that you're happy to provide whatever information would be helpful to him. If your efforts are rebuffed, you can be more forceful and mail a brief summary (no more than three pages) of your loved one’s medical information to the public defender’s office.
Ask the attorney to consider any jail diversion or pre-trial release programs. If you do not know about any programs, contact us to find out if there is a jail diversion program, mental health court or other program to help defendants with mental illness in your community.
Remember that the public defender works for your family member, not you. You can ask your loved one to sign a release that allows the attorney to share information with you. However, he may refuse and there’s little the attorney can do.
You can also hire a private defense attorney who has experience working with clients with mental illness.
Preparing for a Court Appearance
If your loved one is released, he may still need to appear in court. If he does not want to appear in court, you can ask the attorney if there’s a way that the hearing can continue without his presence.
If he needs to attend here are some things you can do to make the experience easier.
Have a friend drop you off and pick you up at the door of the courthouse.
If you must drive, arrive early to make sure you can find parking.
Be aware that security guards may ask you to remove your belt and jacket and search any bags. If your loved one will be upset by these procedures, ask if you can carry these items into the courthouse on his behalf.
Bring food and medicine, if needed, since you may be in court for several hours.
Dress nicely. This will make a good impression on the court and show that you are taking the hearing seriously.
Your family member may want to retain a private attorney or use the Public Defenders Office. A public defender will be assigned at arraignment if your relative does not have or cannot afford a private attorney. Do not be afraid to use a public defender. Public defenders often have knowledge of the system as it pertains to those who need mental health services.
If your family member decides to retain a private attorney, be sure to select one that is well versed in helping people with mental illness and understands how to access the treatment facilities and mental health services that are available.
Bail: Think carefully about posting bail for your family member. No one wants a loved one to remain incarcerated for any length of time. It is an unpleasant experience for them as well as the family. However, you must ask yourself the following question. Will your family member be able to comply with the terms of the bail and appear in court when required? Also, as hard as it may seem, jail may be a safer place for a person with severe mental illness who is in crisis rather than having your loved one wander the streets with no help at all. At least in jail they will be fed, will have shelter, and be given access to medication treatments.
Working with an attorney: Call the Public Defender’s office at the court where the case is being heard and ask for the name and phone number of the attorney who will be handling the case. It is more likely the attorney will be at his or her desk in the morning between 8:00 - 8:30 a.m. before court begins or later in the afternoon after 3:30 p.m.
If you do not reach the attorney, be sure to leave a message requesting a return call with your name, phone number, your family member’s name and, if possible, the case number and court date. Due to the attorney-client confidentiality requirement, there will be information the attorney may not be able to share with you. Remember, it is your family member, not you, who is the attorney’s client.
Inform the attorney of your family member’s condition and any information that may be beneficial to the case. Provide the attorney with an extensive medical/psychiatric/social/educational history of your family member in writing. Include hospitalization, diagnosis information, medication treatment, and the contact information of those doctors/clinicians and of facilities that have treated your family member in the past.
This information will be very useful in pursuing the best outcome for your loved one. Attorneys are extremely busy and many will appreciate written or faxed correspondence.
Supporting and coping with a loved one who suffers from a brain disorder can be extremely challenging and stressful. Knowledge, as well as your love and fortitude, will be essential in helping you to become a strong and effective support system for your family member.
This informational guide was written by NAMI volunteers based on their own personal experience to help families navigate the system. We are not attorneys, and this is not intended to be a substitute for professional legal advice. Please assist your family member in obtaining proper legal representation.