Was Susan Hawk ‘Committed’ or Wasn’t She?

susan_hawk
Photo by Elizabeth Lavin

Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk has taken issue with one important part of the story we published online Sunday. Here’s the way Jamie Thompson reported the details of the most intense period of Hawk’s treatment for depression:

[Hawk] says she began thinking of ways to kill herself. She studied the blow-dryer in her room. Was the cord long enough to strangle herself? What about the strap on her purse?

That night she told a nurse, “I’m going to kill myself anyway. Just let me go home.” But once she uttered those words, she no longer could leave the facility voluntarily. Hawk was officially committed. She was placed under one-on-one supervision, a nurse following her at every moment, to every class, to every meal. At night, a nurse sat beside her bed, watching her sleep.

Hawk now says that’s not what happened. Here’s the way ABC Channel 8 put it:

Hawk … issued a statement, disputing the notion that she was ever in the facility involuntarily during the nine weeks she was there. “I was there voluntarily the entire time,” the statement said. “To say that I was there involuntarily at any point is factually wrong.”

First, I’d like to emphasize that what we reported is what Hawk told Jamie. And in our fact-checking process, Jamie read that passage back to Hawk to make sure it was accurate. Hawk didn’t object at the time.

Here’s some more context to understand what happened when Hawk was in treatment and how she described it to Jamie. To provide more details, Jamie went back to her notes from a 7-hour interview she conducted with Hawk.

Hawk told Jamie: “I said, ‘This would be so much easier. Just let me out. I’m going to kill myself anyway. Just let me go home.’ And they said, ‘We can’t do that now that you’ve said it.’ I was pissed.”

Later in the interview, Jamie circled back to this issue, and Hawk said: “I told them, ‘I just want to die. I want to die. I don’t want to be here anymore.’ And they said, ‘I’m sorry, we have to have someone with you.’ I was just angry. I remember thinking, ‘Why did I say anything?’ I just started crying, bawling.”

Mari Woodlief, Hawk’s adviser, described this time period to Jamie. Woodlief was traveling and told Jamie she remembered that this happened on August 13. When her plane landed, she learned about what was happening with Hawk. Woodlief told Jamie: “I could see several texts and phone calls from Susan’s mom. So I was really worried because when I’d seen her the night before — and this is relevant — when I saw her right before I left, she was under a lot of stress, inside that community. And that’s a part of what they explained was the process. She was talking about whether or not she wanted to be there, whether this was the right place for her, and so when I saw the message from her mom, I was nervous that she had decided to leave. And then I called her mom and her mom said, ‘It’s gotten really bad. Susan told them she wants to kill herself.’ ”

Jamie asked Woodlief what she was thinking at that point. Woodlief said: “There’s nothing I can do. But what I did know is that once she said that, her saying that was going to keep her there, since they were obligated to make sure she didn’t leave.”

That’s what was said in interviews last month with Woodlief and Hawk. After Hawk said that our story was “factually wrong,” Jamie spoke with Woodlief. That happened today. Here’s how Jamie describes that exchange:

I asked Woodlief to clarify what I got factually wrong. She said it’s in the technical wording. She said Hawk was not officially committed through a court process. But she admits that Hawk could not have left the facility voluntarily, if she had wanted to. Woodlief insists Hawk was there “voluntarily,” even though she couldn’t leave.

“If she wanted to leave,” Woodlief said, “she couldn’t have left. That is true. But that doesn’t mean she was involuntarily committed. It’s a technical thing. … She said she wanted to kill herself. At that point, if she tried to leave, she could not have left. But she didn’t try to leave.”

I asked: “If she had walked out the door, what would have happened?”

Woodlief said: “Well, first of all, she couldn’t have walked out the door because of the setup. It was locked.”

In summary, while it is true that Hawk was not committed through a court hearing, there was a point when she did want to leave the facility but was not allowed to because she’d said she wanted to kill herself. After she was told she couldn’t leave, she didn’t attempt to leave.

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