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Judge exonerates mental health workers in Stoneman Douglas tragedy
South Florida Sun Sentinel - 4/30/2019
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. _ The mental health professionals who treated the Parkland school shooter before his murderous rampage had no legal responsibility to warn anyone that he was violent, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Broward Judge Patti Englander Henning threw out lawsuits against Henderson Behavioral Health, which treated gunman Nikolas Cruz before he shot 34 people _ 17 fatally _ at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018.
Florida law is clear, the judge said: Mental health workers have no duty to protect the public from possible harm by someone they have no control over.
Unlike other medical doctors, who can rely on diagnostic tools to confirm diseases, mental health professionals cannot accurately predict whether a person will be violent, she explained.
"The court understands and sympathizes with the community as we try to make sense of this horrific tragedy," she said from the bench. "A way of healing is to find and identify a force to blame."
The parents of Meadow Pollack, who died, and Anthony Borges, who survived but was severely wounded, alleged that Henderson failed them and the shooter.
"But the law is clear, they do not have standing to argue Henderson's possible failures," Henning said from the bench.
She made an appeal to lawmakers in Tallahassee to address the scourge of mass shootings.
"The hope must be that the Legislature, looking in hindsight, will have the foresight to find ways and laws to stop violence, not just determine liability once it has occurred."
An attorney for the Borges family said they will continue their legal quest for accountability.
"I'm disappointed," attorney Alex Arreaza said. "But we will appeal."
Henderson Behavioral Health is Broward County's largest mental health provider, serving some 30,000 people statewide a year. Many of its clients are poor and suffer the most serious mental illnesses.
The nonprofit charges patients based on their ability to pay and relies on tax dollars, grants and charitable donations.
"Nobody wins here today in the face of a tragedy like this," said Henderson's attorney, Joshua B. Walker of Orlando. "But there have been a number of preposterous allegations that have been made throughout this case. Just because somebody alleges something does not mean that it's true."
He continued: "By now most people have realized that Nikolas Cruz had not been a patient with Henderson for more than a year before the shooting, and during the time that he was a patient, he did not own any guns. And he wasn't making any threats to shoot up anyone. So we are hopeful that with this ruling today, the families can continue their healing process."
By way of explanation, Henning discussed in her ruling the impracticality of requiring Henderson to warn others of Cruz's potential for violence. To whom should the warning be given?
"Only the school board?" she said. "Parents of all students? Parents of those who were victims? Only students who were at Marjory Stoneman Douglas when Cruz was in attendance? Or all incoming students and parents? Even those who he'd been in school with and graduated? To other schools he attended? All schools? The teachers? The police? And if so, what jurisdiction? And for how long would this duty exist?"
She said it's clear now, only after the 2018 massacre, that Cruz "carried out the unthinkable."
Beforehand, she said: "There was no definitive threat made by Cruz concerning any particular person or place. There was no clear identifiable party to warn of injury. All of this shows even further the reason why Florida law repeatedly states that mental health providers lack the legal ability to perceive and prevent criminal acts of those not under their control and should not have a duty to warn."
(c)2019 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
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