By Taylor Knopf
On the first night of class, UNC law professor Pat DeVine tells her students that she has an agenda. She wants every student to graduate with more in mind than making six figures a year.
“I want you to have formed an opinion about how you can do some good and make a contribution,” she said. “If this doesn’t appeal to you, you can drop the class.”
She said no student ever has.
DeVine, now in her 70s, took a circuitous path into the legal profession, starting out as a nun. She grew up going to Catholic girls schools and said, “my whole life I loved the nuns.”
Her senior year of college, she entered the convent at St. Mary’s in Columbus, Ohio, and her undergraduate diploma reads “Sister Constance.”
“I liked the idea of being constant,” she said. “Although, of course, I was not. I flew the coop.”
After five years in the convent, she received a Christmas letter from her old college boyfriend. The two became pen pals and DeVine slowly realized that she wanted a family someday.
When she left the convent, three nuns in full habit drove Sister Constance from Columbus to her parents home in Cincinnati, where her mom had a room full of clothes for her. Her mother had prepared brunch for the group, but the meal was interrupted by a long-distance call from Chapel Hill. It was the boyfriend.
He asked her to come to North Carolina. Only a few weeks out of the convent, DeVine went to be with him in Chapel Hill. Two weeks later, they were engaged. The young couple soon had twins they named Timothy and Elizabeth.
No longer a nun, DeVine said she wanted to continue helping people, so she went to law school.
At 41 years old, DeVine graduated from UNC School of Law in 1983, and since then, she’s done it all. She was a public defender, assistant district attorney and retired from the bench as a judge in Orange and Chatham Counties.
Early in her career, DeVine began to notice quite a few people ended up in a courtroom when what they really needed was mental health treatment.
“Some people who commit crimes are not criminals,” she said. “They’re sick.”
As a public defender, DeVine recalled watching a man who was acting difficult and belligerent stand before the judge without a lawyer. She said the judge was about to hold him in contempt and send him to jail.
She approached the bench and asked the judge for a few minutes with the man.
“I believe very strongly that he’s not well,” she recalled telling the judge.
She got the case continued and helped him find treatment for his mental illness. DeVine said she was familiar with the symptoms because she saw them so often in her clients.
When Chief District Court Judge Joe Buckner was looking for a judge to preside over North Carolina’s first mental health court, he chose DeVine.
Also, as the mother of a son with schizoaffective disorder, Buckner knew her lived experience would serve the court well.
“I watched her as a defense attorney, and she was probably as good at humanizing a person that had done some pretty bad things as any attorney I had ever seen,” Buckner said.
They called it “community resource court” because Buckner said they didn’t want the court to have a stigma about a person’s mental condition.
“And it really is about managing community resources to help that person to have a safe and happy life and maintain some stability,” Buckner said.
DeVine said she learned that every person who came before the court had a unique story, and she likes to say that everyone is “walking wounded.”
“We all have our issues, and we all have had our problems, but some people are afflicted with mental illness,” she said. “It’s not of their choosing. Some people get cancer or other diseases and some people get mental illness.”
She explained that presiding over a mental health court is a very different way to be a judge. In a typical court session, she would go in, hear the case, and decide what should be done.
“For this court, I’m a team player,” she said. “I sit there and listen to therapists, psychiatrists, social workers and so forth report to me about how the person is doing. As long as the person is cooperating, my job from the bench is to say, ‘You look great. I’m so glad that you’re still taking your meds. How are things going?’”
If the participant successfully completes the program, the case against them is dismissed.
Certain kinds of crimes, such as violent felonies, are not eligible for mental health court. But Buckner said that’s not the usual crime people with mental illnesses are arrested for.
“We knew that we had a large population that we saw on almost a daily basis in our regular criminal courts that were not meeting our real criminal profile,” he said. “They were committing community nuisance crimes and neighborhood crimes.”
Buckner said the community resource court is the most successful court in his whole system. He said that probably fewer than 1 percent of the court’s participants spend any time in jail and that their compliance rates are extremely high. They take their medications, make their appointments and graduate the program.
He said there’s no better example than the story of DeVine’s son.
“Tim Faherty did not need to be in a jail ever,” Buckner said. “But he did need a place to be […] Everybody needs a bed, a buddy and a job.”
After an arrest, a couple of years in a mental health facility, and finding the right medications, Faherty lived a fairly stable life. He had his own supervised apartment at a complex in Chapel Hill. He found purpose at Club Nova, a clubhouse for people with severe and persistent mental illnesses. And his buddy was his mother.
Mother and son
Faherty showed signs of having a mental illness in his 20s. DeVine said her son abused alcohol and marijuana and had trouble holding a job.
“If the inside of your head is turning into hell, and you’re hearing voices, and you think people are out to get you, substances can do a lot for a period of time to kind of block that out,” she said.
Then one day, Faherty snatched a lady’s purse on the steps of the courthouse. He was arrested and DeVine had her son involuntarily committed to a hospital in Butner.
“We’re going to keep you here,” she recalled telling her son. “You’re not a criminal, sweetie. You’re just a little crazy. We’re going to get you on the right meds and you’re going to be alright.
“And I said that with relief and love for him,” DeVine said.
After the hospital, Faherty moved into a group home for a time and then to his own apartment, where he got his own checking account and car. He was an artist, a cartoonist and a musician.
He took his medications consistently and was mostly stable, DeVine said.
Medications have side effects, and DeVine said her son was always worried to some degree.
The first time Faherty met his mother’s new neighbor, he said, “Hey, I’m Tim, Pat’s son. I have mental illness, but you don’t need to be afraid of me. I’m not going to hurt anybody.”
DeVine said that exchange was heartbreaking to her because he lived with the stigma associated with mental illness.
“He’s the best man I’ve ever known,” DeVine said. “He used to say to me, ‘Mom, you got to have compassion. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.’”
An example to the end
Sadly, statistics show people with severe mental illness die 10-25 years earlier than the average in the population.
Shortly before Christmas 2015, Faherty fell to the floor in a Chapel Hill grocery store and died of a blood clot that traveled to his lungs. The emergency responder knew he was the son of a retired judge and notified Buckner who called one of DeVine’s closest friends, former judge and now state Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham).
Morey drove straight to DeVine’s home to deliver the news.
“I knocked on the door and she said, ‘Well, what do I have the pleasure of having you here today?’” Morey remembered. “And you kind of just take your last breath before you know her life is going to change forever.”
Although DeVine wishes she had the chance to say goodbye to her boy, she’s grateful that he didn’t suffer through the end of his life.
Morey said she had known Faherty well and described him as a “kind, thoughtful, conscientious and beautiful soul.” She would join the mother and son for dinner at a seafood place Faherty liked. She said their relationship was as much friendship as it was familial.
Faherty taught his mother a lot, Morey said. And DeVine was “in awe” of her son as she watched him struggle, develop and then succeed in living life on his own.
“Anyone that you talk to that knows Pat will say she’s one of the most caring, compassionate, former nuns, judges that you’ll ever meet,” Morey said.
—-DeVine said that exchange was heartbreaking to her because he lived with the stigma “associated with” mental illness.
Actually, he lived with those who learned to associate a stigma with mental illness, and, I am sure, a great many people who do not. We are changing, those taught to say there is a stigma still exist, but they are decreasing in number.
Touching, heart warming, emotional, and most of all a story that needs to be shared.
If we can ever get a semblance of control of mental issues, court and imprisonment costs will fall dramatically.
My sincere appreciation to a mother, judge, professor and to a marvelous example of a loving incredible lady.
Taylor, this was a splendid piece of journalism, as are many of your previous articles. Thanks for painting a picture that gives us some answers to mental health issues!
Thanks for a splendid article that paints a path to addressing the problems we face with mental health!
My goddess: in a world gone mad and collapsing from trying to deal with constant lying and grandstanding, comes a story about a saint or very nearly one. I’d say something about a “point of light” but that stems from an expression eg.,“thousand points of light” by a man who started wars and was amazed that common people used barcodes to check out of grocery stores.
Give us some strong women who have the grace and intelligence you have outlined here. Thank you.
Pat DeVine defines kindness.
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