DRW attorney Emily Cooper receives Governor's Award
Emily Cooper, DRW staff attorney, was awarded the Governor’s Trophy Award in Memory of Carolyn Blair Brown. It is reserved for a Washington resident with a disability who has significantly enhanced the empowerment of individuals with disabilities in the community and workforce.
Emily (right) and her mother, Susan Cooper Barron, with Governor Jay Inslee
Emily embodies the virtues honored by the Governor’s Trophy in Memory of Carolyn Blair Brown.
She is a lawyer with mental illness who has built her career around empowering individuals with disabilities in the community and workforce. Working at Disability Rights Washington, Emily dedicates every day and many nights to serving people with all types of disabilities in every possible setting. Below are a few examples of the work she has been engaged in over the last year that shows the impact she has on the empowerment of people with disabilities in the community and workforce.
Questions of Discrimination
In 1994, the American Bar Association issued a recommendation that state bar associations tailor application questions concerning mental health when making character and fitness determinations to avoid discouraging applicants with mental illness from seeking treatment. However, over twenty years later, the Washington State Bar Association (“WSBA”) requires everyone who wants to be an attorney in Washington State to answer two questions regarding mental health treatment. If an applicant answers “yes” to the questions, WSBA goes on to request copies of their protected health records. Therefore, beyond discouraging treatment, applicants are forced to choose between their rights to privacy and freedom from discrimination and the ability to practice law in Washington State. In the fall of 2013, Emily led a meeting between key advocacy stakeholders and legal counsel at WSBA. The WSBA’s position at that time was that these questions served a legitimate purpose because attorneys with mental illness impacted public safety.
In response, Emily developed a public information campaign including creating a broad coalition of over 100 individuals and organization including the deans of all three law schools in Washington State, national leaders, future bar applicants, law firms, and non-profits who all signed the letter asking WSBA to stop singling out applicants with mental illness. You can review this letter, letters from the ACLU of Washington and the Washington State Attorney General, and a short documentary entitled Questions of Discrimination.
In response to the efforts led by Emily, in less than a year and a half, WSBA has made an about face. On April 24, 2015, the Washington State Bar Association (“WSBA”) Board of Governors voted to completely eliminate all inquiries into mental health status and agrees that applicants should no longer be asked about their mental health when determining whether an applicant is fit to practice law. The Washington State Supreme Court ultimately approved the changed which has just gone into effect and as a result of Emily’s education and coalition efforts no applicants for the upcoming January bar exam, or any subsequent bar exam, will be asked these discriminatory questions.
Delays in Competency Services – AB (Trueblood) v. DSHS
Imagine having a mental health crisis and finding yourself in a county jail, with little or no mental health treatment, isolated with no direct human contact, in a cell with no toilet or furniture for 23-24 hours a day with only a hole in the floor to use for your waste and wearing only a smock and no socks or underwear, as days become weeks, then months, all while the symptoms of your mental illness get worse. For the past fifteen years, tens of thousands of individuals have waited weeks and even months in local Washington State jails for evaluation or restoration services in such condition after their competency to stand trial for criminal charges had been called into question. Like other states, under Washington State law, whenever there is reason to doubt that an individual with mental disabilities is competent to stand trial, the trial court is to order an evaluation to determine their competency. The law charges the two state hospitals with evaluating and treating these individuals. If their competency is restored, their criminal cases may proceed; if it is not restored, the criminal charges are dismissed. During the evaluation and restoration periods, speedy trial rights are automatically waived, and the criminal proceedings are stayed. Unfortunately, the state has failed to perform these services on a timely basis. Stays of criminal proceedings pending evaluation and restoration of competency often last for months. As a result, individuals with mental health disabilities have languished in city and county jails without appropriate mental health treatment while awaiting services from the state hospitals. Warehousing these vulnerable people in jail is harmful. The delays cause individuals to experience needless deterioration in their mental health as they sit in jails – frequently in solitary confinement for 22 to 23 hours a day – for weeks and months on end. Jail disciplinary systems can further exacerbate mental health conditions. People often end up spending more time waiting in jail than they would if they had pleaded guilty.
Emily has worked on this issue for years. She used DRW’s federal access authority to enter jails and find people who are not competent to reach out for help. She interviewed and observed constituents waiting in jail for competency services as well as reviewed their records, toured the jails and isolation rooms where they were kept, and regularly obtained and analyzed the wait lists kept by the state hospitals. In 2013, Emily wrote the report Lost and Forgotten: Conditions of Confinement While Waiting for Competency Evaluation and Restoration. Her report was the result of a six-month investigation at eight county jails in Washington State. She also met regularly with state hospital administrators in charge of providing these services who routinely told her that they lacked the resources to appropriately respond to the demand. Because she was unable to resolve this constitutional crisis despite all of these efforts, in 2014, Emily, along with her co-counsel, litigated this issue in A.B. v Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).
On April 2, 2015, a federal court issued a strongly worded decision that Washington State was violating the constitution by forcing class members to wait in jail more than seven days for court-ordered competency services. In its ruling, the Court stated: “The mentally ill are deserving of the protections of the Constitution that our forefathers so carefully crafted. The rights protected can be difficult and sometimes costly to secure; however, the Constitution is a guarantee to all people, and is not dependent on a price tag. The State must honor its obligations under the law.” The Court went on to order that the State take immediate steps to reduce the length of time class members are waiting so that no one is waiting more than seven days for admission to a hospital or 14 days for a fully completed jail-based evaluation.
In this past year, Emily monitored both the state’s compliance with the Federal court’s orders as well as worked with the Court Monitor. For example, Emily led efforts to find the state in contempt for failing to reduce wait times for competency services. On July 7, 2016, the court found the state in contempt and levied civil contempt sanctions that are already in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and still growing. All of this money is dedicated to diverting people with mental illness from even entering jail to begin with.
Patients Not Prisoners – The Sanka Party and Ross v. Inslee
In 2011, a patient walked away from a state hospital without authorization. This patient had been acquitted as Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (“NGRI”) and, like all NGRI patients, was committed to the hospital because it was determined that he needed treatment from his mental illness rather than the punishment prisoners receive when they are found guilty of a crime. While no one was harmed during the walk away and the patient turned himself in three days later, the resulting mass media frenzy culminated in a series of punitive legislation and state hospital policies eroding patient rights and ultimately the hope of recovery by patients at both state hospitals. For example, one legislative action banned NGRI patients from leaving the hospital buildings except when attending a funeral or going to a medical appointment including those patients who had walked the grounds for years without incident. Data compiled by the state hospital demonstrates this population has an incredibly low recidivism rate of less than 1%. In other words, these patients recover and rarely go on to commit new crimes. Yet, this did not stop the erosion of the patient rights and a political climate that is more geared towards punishment rather than treatment in violation of established constitutional protections. After their powdered decaffeinated coffee was taken away, the patients formed a group called the Sanka Party and reached out to DRW seeking information ranging from how to work with their treatment teams to using social media to tell a story.
Emily helped amplify the patients’ voices beyond the walls of the locked hospital units in which they were confined. She met with patients and discussed their concerns. Patients wanted to tell their story and Emily helped them do that by bringing video cameras into the locked psychiatric units at both adult psychiatric units. She and a DRW videographer produced the short documentary “Megaphone Effect: Reclaiming Recovery”. The documentary was viewed by Washington State law makers who considered proposed legislation to restore patient rights, screened at the Tacoma Film Festival, and was distributed nationally creating similar patient movements in other state hospitals.
Emily also challenged the stigma of mental illness in the media head on. She shared the documentary with reporters and worked to cultivate relationships with media outlets that would be cover the reality of the patients’ experiences, not salacious fear mongering. This translated into a yearlong series of articles about the reality of living with mental illness in Spokane’s weekly paper, the Northwest Inlander.
Emily remained committed to these patients, and when the patients’ advocacy needed additional support she was there. In May 2014, Emily and her co-counsel filed a lawsuit called Ross v. Inslee against the State of Washington demanding a restoration of their rights to the same level they were at before the walk away. According to named plaintiff Ketema Ross, “The cost of taking away the very liberties that this country and the United States Constitution represent, is you are taking away something that is very precious, priceless, and should absolutely be restored.” This case was recently settled with the court retaining jurisdiction to ensure the state follows through on its agreement to improve the treatment and release planning of patients so they can succeed when they move from the state hospitals back into their communities.
Additionally, for the past several years Emily has volunteered several hours a month with the Washington Attorneys with Disabilities Association and serves as the organization’s public policy director. In this role she represented the organization in conversations with the bar association.
Emily has also shared her disability advocacy perspectives with the ACLU of Washington as a member of their Board of Directors for the past five years where she also dedicates several hours a month.
In 2012, Emily was selected as a fellow with the Equal Justice Community Leadership Academy. After demonstrating her leadership capacity, she was selected as co-faculty for the Academy where she teaches quarterly courses on issues ranging from developing and delivering strategic intent, achieving workable unity, and fostering a path for renewal.
In 2015, Emily also began working at Seattle University School of Law as an Adjunct Professor of Law. While paid to do this work, Emily provides many hours of service beyond what is necessary, and works to incorporate disability advocacy into her lesson plans even though it is not required. For example, when teaching practical lawyering skills, she incorporates the concept of implicit bias relating to disability into her class work. This gives her the opportunity to not only mold future lawyers through their explicit instruction, but also serve as a role model to students who may have hidden disabilities and are contemplating coming out and also for those students with unexamined bias about people with disabilities who may reassess their preconceptions as a result of being in her class.
Emily is dedicated to promoting disability issues in both her professional and volunteer endeavors. From producing videos to amplify the voices of patients in locked psychiatric hospitals, to promoting employment of people with disabilities by eliminating professional licensing barriers, to filing lawsuits to protect the constitutional rights of people with disabilities, to serving on volunteer boards to challenge perceptions and decisions affecting people with disabilities, and educating students and professionals about bias against people with disabilities, Emily fights for disability rights everywhere she goes.