BURLINGTON, Vt. -- There was no legal basis for holding an Essex woman against her will for 5 1/2 weeks at a psychiatric ward after her estranged husband killed their son and then hanged himself, a Vermont Superior Court judge ruled Friday.
Judge Kevin Griffin ordered that Christina Schumacher, 48, be allowed to leave Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington at once.
"The Application for Involuntary Treatment is DENIED. The Court ORDERS respondent released immediately," Griffin wrote.
Schumacher was hospitalized involuntarily Dec. 19, one day after the bodies of Gunnar Schumacher, 14, and Ludwig "Sonny" Schumacher, 49, were found in an Essex apartment.
The judge heard about three hours of testimony and legal arguments behind closed doors Wednesday in Vermont Superior Court in Burlington about Christina Schumacher's situation.
A doctor had determined before Schumacher arrived for a regular appointment Dec. 19 that she needed to admit herself to the psych ward or be taken into custody, court and police records show.
Griffin, in a one-page order made public late Friday afternoon, indicated he disagreed with the assessment.
"The court did not find, by clear and convincing evidence, that Respondent was a person in need of treatment at the time of admission or application, nor a patient in need of further treatment at the time of the hearing," Griffin ruled.
Although the court order was released to the Burlington Free Press, Griffin kept under seal a copy of his findings of fact and conclusions of law that supported his decision.
Attempts to reach Schumacher on Friday afternoon were unsuccessful. It was unclear if she had been released in accordance with the judge's order by 7:30 p.m. The psych ward referred calls to the hospital's risk management lawyer.
Schumacher called the Burlington Free Press Dec. 30 and asked the newspaper to investigate her case, saying there was no basis for holding her. She said her top objectives were to be reunited with her 17-year-old daughter and to be able to grieve at home.
In a series of in-person and phone interviews, Schumacher also said she wanted to make sure nobody is subjected to the same treatment and conditions she had to endure. Schumacher, who worked for IDX and GE Healthcare for about 23 years, added the ordeal has prompted her to contemplate becoming a lawyer.
Sonny Schumacher strangled Gunnar, an Essex High School freshman, and then later died by hanging at his apartment at 8 Carmichael St. in Essex, the police have said. The bodies were found Dec. 18.
The involuntary hospitalization traces its roots to the summer, when the Schumachers separated after she sought a relief-from-domestic-abuse order in July. Court records indicate Schumacher indicated to her sister Louise Lynch that if anything happened to her two children, she would kill herself.
Lynch, who has declined comment in the case, was among the witnesses at Wednesday's hearing. Three other family members — two of Schumacher's brothers, Mark and Matthew Fitzgerald, and Matthew's wife, Kathleen Fitzgerald — were excluded from her hearing room, but no reason was made public. The hearing was held in a first floor conference room at Fletcher Allen.
"I can't speak to specifics of this case, but I can say that in all matters such as this we make decisions that we think are in the best interests of the patient," Mike Noble, spokesman for Fletcher Allen Health Care, said after the judge issued his ruling.
"We also welcome judicial review, for the judge has the legal authority to rule in these cases," Noble continued. "For that reason we have been advocating for a speedier review system and will continue to do so during this legislative session."
Vermont law does not require a prompt judicial review of an involuntary hospitalization, only a clinical review, according to State Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield. She has been among the mental health advocates to criticize that system.
Todd Centybear, executive director of the HowardCenter, whose staff was among those involved in screening Schumacher on Dec. 19, said he had not heard about the ruling until Burlington Free Press contacted him Friday afternoon.
Centybear said that although his staff participated in the screening that allowed for a three-day clinical review of Schumacher's mental health, he questioned why the case dragged on so long.
"How did the 72 hours stretch into the other set of time?" he said, referring to 5 1/2 weeks. "People are trying to do the best they can with something that is not an exact science."
Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, whose office was arguing for Schumacher's continued hospitalization, did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.
Griffin, the Superior Court judge who ordered Schumacher's release, had promised a quick written decision as he ended the hearing Wednesday evening. The proceeding was the first substantive judicial review of her case since she was hospitalized.
At issue was whether Schumacher represented a threat. The HowardCenter, a Fletcher Allen psychiatrist and a hospital social worker had stated they believed she might have a mental illness that required treatment and "poses a danger to herself and others," according to documents in the case.
Schumacher and her friends have maintained she posed no danger, and, ultimately, a judge agreed.