Flint family says HIPAA laws left them in the dark about dangerous relative - until it was too late

By Kevin Dietz - Reporter, Sierra Pedraja - Editor

FLINT, Mich. - Local 4 Defenders exposed a breakdown in the mental health system in which privacy laws put in place for patients put that one patient’s family in serious danger.

Members of a Flint family are sharing their real-life horror story of not knowing that a relative living in their home was medically declared a threat – until gunshots erupted.

Theresa Bass was at her home on Sloan Heights Drive when she heard the sound of gunshots. It was her niece, Cassie Smith, who was doing the shooting, she said.

“I realized she was pointing a gun at me and I said to her, 'What are you doing?' and then she shot again," Theresa said.

The bullet missed Theresa, but her daughter, Starr, wasn’t so lucky. She was shot in the arm.

Cassie went on to shoot the family dog.

The family says Cassie was living with them because she was not getting along with her own family. She had checked into the Hurley Mental Health Facility nearly a year earlier. She was treated and released on the advice that she was to stay on her medication.

Because Cassie is an adult, HIPAA laws prevented hospitals from sharing her medical records, including the record indicating that she was a danger to herself and others.

Her relatives were never informed of this professional conclusion.

I feel like we should've been warned, absolutely,” Starr said.

“It calls for a clinical decision to balance the risk of harm versus the risk of violating a patient's confidentiality,” said Dr. Gerald Shiner, an expert in criminal psychiatry.

The victims say if they had known about the risk of having Cassie in their home, they would have monitored her to make sure she took her medicine.

“If you're going to cut someone loose from the psych ward and deposit them in a family, the family should at least know that there is a danger there,” Theresa said.

A day before the shooting, Cassie was feeling off and checked herself into a local hospital.

“I got the nurse privately, and I said, 'Listen she has mental illness. She owns a gun, you cannot let her leave,' we need to try to get her into a psych ward,” Theresa said.

Cassie was released less than 24 hours later, just hours before she began shooting.

Family members figured Cassie would spend most of her life in prison, but they were met with another surprise in court.

Cassie was ruled competent to stand trial, but not mentally sound to be criminally responsible.

“They could be insane at the time of the criminal act but later, once they're under treatment, be sane,” Neil Rockind, Local 4’s legal expert, said.

Cassie will be housed at a mental health facility until doctors say she is well enough to be discharged into a halfway house. After her time at the halfway house, she will be released.

This concerns her family.

“We feel really sad for Cassie, we want her to get the help that she needs, but I'm scared, if she's ever out on the street…that scares me,” Theresa said.

The family has been told to trust that the system will not release Cassie until she is no longer a threat to society. But her relatives say they do not trust the system and worry that one day she will show up at their home.

Cassie’s family members are hoping to meet with lawmakers to discuss exceptions to HIPAA rules that allow family members to know if someone living with them is a danger.

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