After multiple hearings, mentally ill man finally in treatment

EVERETT — The case landed the secretary of the state Department of Social and Health Services in front of a Snohomish County Superior Court judge, who demanded to know why Washington’s beleaguered psychiatric hospitals continue to delay admissions for mentally ill inmates.

Judge Anita Farris held multiple hearings trying to sort out why a Bothell man, charged with felony stalking, remained in jail untreated and so sick he couldn’t assist with his own defense. Why were wait times longer than before a federal court judge ordered changes at Western State Hospital and lawmakers appropriated more than $40 million to DSHS to add beds? Why was an acutely ill man languishing in jail?

At one day-long court hearing, the man, who has schizophrenia, mumbled to himself for hours, oblivious to the lawyers and judge. He finally was wheeled out of the hearing after he became increasingly agitated. The 23-year-old screamed at Farris on the way out.

His confusion gave way to anger; his sickness undeniable.

“Over and over again, DSHS’s claims that this problem will soon be solved have turned out to be wrong,” Farris wrote in a recent order. “For this defendant, soon was not soon enough to protect his constitutional rights.”

In that same order Farris attributed the “unconstitutional and illegal” delays to serious government mismanagement. She said if the man came back before her, she would order the state to pay for treatment outside of Western if it couldn’t admit him within seven days. The state can’t shirk its responsibilities because of a lack of planning and poor management, the judge wrote.

The man’s criminal charge recently was dismissed.

State doctors concluded that additional treatment wouldn’t help him understand the charge against him. He was ordered held a Western State Hospital for potential civil commitment and long-term care.

Meanwhile one of his attorneys called the delayed treatment of someone with an obvious mental illness unconscionable.

“We wouldn’t accept a criminal justice system that treated people with cancer the way we treat people with mental illness. The only difference is the stigma of mental illness. The less we understand about these vulnerable citizens, the more we incarcerate them out of fear. It’s shameful,” public defender Jason Schwarz said.

His client, who has no previous criminal convictions, waited 64 days in jail until he was admitted to the hospital in early January.

State psychologists reported late last month that no amount of additional mental health treatment would improve the Bothell man’s ability to assist his defense attorneys. They didn’t recommend any additional restoration treatment.

His symptoms appear to be partially managed on his current medication, but he continues to display “disorganized behaviors, disorganized and fragmented thoughts, and impairments in his ability to follow a though to completion … ” the psychologist wrote.

She noted some examples of his bizarre behavior, including screaming in the dining hall: “I’m here (because) I started my lawn mower. That’s right.”

There is no robust mental health system, or easily accessible civil commitment process to help divert people out of the criminal justice system, Schwarz said.

The man was jailed Nov. 4 after being charged with stalking. His father had become fearful of his son’s increasingly erratic behavior. He obtained a no-contact order in 2014. The man repeatedly called his father and left threatening messages. The phone calls were reported to police. Then in July the man’s mother reported that her son threatened to shoot teachers and students at Bothell High School.

The man’s father told police that the system had failed his family.

“He doesn’t understand what he’s doing wrong,” the man’s sister said. “He doesn’t understand the restraining order. He doesn’t understand he can’t sleep in the park.”

She is concerned her brother will be released to the street again without proper treatment or housing. He wasn’t competent to stand trial for a previous trespassing charge but Western declined to hold him for civil commitment, she said.

“That’s no solution at all,” the Oregon woman said.

He was 15 or 16 when his family started noticing a change in his behavior. He started saying things that didn’t make sense. At first they chalked it up to him experimenting with marijuana and alcohol, but his symptoms became more acute.

He didn’t like the way medications made him feel. His paranoia increased. He actions became more erratic. His family didn’t feel safe with him at home, and he was unwilling to take medication. He jumped from a tree in 2013 and severely injured his back. He spent nearly a year in the hospital and he has used a wheelchair since the incident.

His sister hopes that this time her brother can get meaningful help. If he can get stabilized, maybe he could find housing and even a job, she said.

He’s a great mechanic, who taught himself to rebuild a motorcycle at age 15.

“I have so many memories of him sitting in my parents’ dining room polishing chrome parts with a toothbrush,” she said.

She also has memories of a young man who loved all things Western, including John Wayne movies and Louis L’amour books.

He was the one she called when she was broken down alongside the road. He was calm and reassuring when she was in a panic after being side-swiped by a bus.

Even out on the street, he would call to check on her.

“The conversation often loses course. One moment he thinks I’m his sister and the next he’s asking me if I’m his mom, but every time he calls his first question is, ‘How are you?’ ” she said.

She holds on to those moments.

“He’s sick, but that’s not who he is,” she said. “He’s a whole person underneath there.”

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dianahefley.

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