Nearly a year ago, a tragic story unfolded as Danielle and Ken Lambert handed their two children — a 5 year old daughter and a 4 year old son — over to Danielle’s twin sister, Marcelle Thibault, to drive them to a sleepover. They never made it there alive, as Thibault crossed the median of a busy interstate highway in her car, stopped it in the wrong direction, undressed herself and the two children, and then ran them into the oncoming traffic, to all three of their deaths.
Now the Lamberts want justice and to prevent this bizarre incident from happening to another family. But given the complete and utter random bizarreness of the incident, it’s a tragedy unlikely to unfold in anyone else’s home anytime soon. The article in today’s Boston Globe lays out the story:
“If she got the help she needed, this wouldn’t have happened,” Danielle Lambert said. “My sister was a good person. She was my best friend. I know she wouldn’t have done that intentionally.” […]
The Lamberts, in the interview, said McLean doctors should not have discharged Thibault after six days; Thibault, they said, was still delusional and believed God had sent her to the hospital to help other patients. Danielle Lambert and another sister, Stacey Coady, also said McLean staff never told the family at a meeting before Thibault’s discharge that she was at risk to kill herself or someone else.
The case comes down to the fact that two things stand out. One, she was treated for nearly a week, 4 months prior to the event, at McLean Hospital, a prestigious psychiatric hospital outside of Boston. There she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, placed on appropriate medication, and was recommended to continue treatment on an outpatient basis. She was likely not considered a danger to herself or others at the time by the mental health professionals who treated her, so that’s likely why nobody was told she was. No offense, but someone who has delusions and believes they are put on Earth to “help other patients” is not exactly someone who screams out, “I’m suicidal or homicidal.” They are just as likely to be seen as harmless (since there’s absolutely zero research or data to show someone who is delusional is at greater risk to harm others).
The second concern happened the same night Thibault went to pick up the children. She stopped in the very same median a few hours earlier, and got out of her car. A Good Samaritan stopped to see if she needed assistance, and she started throwing punches at him. State Police arrived at the scene and talked to Thibault and made the determination that although her behavior was erratic, it didn’t arise to a serious enough level to consider taking her into custody for a psychiatric evaluation.
Now in 20/20 hindsight, everyone sees that the tragedy may have prevented had the police taken her into custody instead of letting her go on her way. But these are judgment calls made in the moment with little evidence to go on outside of the way the person is behaving. If we start second-guessing every such call, we prevent police from carrying out their daily jobs. And in America, police are right to err on allowing someone their Constitutional rights to freedom and her personal liberty. After all, it’s not against the law to act “weird” or even “erratic.” We may think these are signs of something more dark and sinister, but in 99.9% of the cases, they are not.
So do we therefore make new laws and demands on institutions and the government to protect us in these 0.01% of cases? I hope not.
We Can’t Legislate Bizarre Behavior
We also cannot (or generally should not) force people into outpatient treatment — or any kind of treatment — if they are not an immediate danger to themselves or others. McLean’s clinicians apparently didn’t think she was and that’s why she was released. And indeed, while followup care should dictate a certain measure of ensuring people are adhering to their treatment regimen, in a free society, such as ours, we cannot demand that they do so.