Mother hopes mentally ill son finally gets help

EVERETT — Suzanne Lankford breathes a little easier these days knowing that her son isn’t out on the streets or in a jail cell, left alone with the paranoia and cruel hallucinations that terrorize him.

She is grateful that finally her son is locked up at Western State Hospital, the region’s mental health hospital. Lankford hopes that her boy is getting the help he needs to be safe, and for others around him to stay safe. Maybe with enough help, her son will someday get his life back.

Joshua Rockwell, 27, is living with paranoid schizophrenia. Recently, he told his mom that he was worried that someone had stolen his body. He said there’s no way to get it back because a device had been destroyed. He’s convinced that he’s a few seconds behind everyone else on the planet.

Lankford has been through too much with her son, seen too many gaps in the criminal and mental health systems to believe that Rockwell’s stay at Western State Hospital is the end of a long journey.

She’s witnessed first-hand how a mentally ill young man can slip through the cracks and how a family can be left feeling powerless to rescue their loved one or protect those in his path when the disease robs him of logic and compassion for others.

“There’s so much juggling, so many twists and turns, and no accountability on anyone’s part,” Lankford said of the treatment of mental illnesses.

She is convinced that many tragedies involving those living with mental illness could have been prevented if there were more avenues to get people help sooner.

“I would say in 9 out of 10 cases the family was there screaming for help prior to these tragedies, and they could not get any help due to the mental health laws as they stand today,” Lankford said.

Despite years of trying to get her son meaningful help, he became entangled in the criminal justice system more than two years ago.

He held a terrified couple at knifepoint outside Alderwood, robbing them of a wallet. The dangerous robbery was caught on video surveillance and Rockwell was quickly arrested.

His family believes Rockwell wasn’t taking his medication when he threatened the couple.

Prosecutors in August 2010 charged Rockwell with robbery. That marked the beginning of a two-year stretch in which Rockwell was shuttled between jail, Western State Hospital and courtrooms.

Lankford believes once Rockwell was arrested, the focus shifted from treating his illness to making him stable enough to face prosecution.

Mental health professionals spent more than a year trying to restore his competency. Doctors, however, concluded that Rockwell remained too sick to assist with his own defense.

The robbery charge finally was dropped in February when experts concluded that Rockwell’s competency could not be restored despite months in the hospital’s forensic unit.

The court then ordered that Rockwell be evaluated for civil commitment at Western State Hospital.

Lankford was hopeful that doctors would see that Rockwell needed to be held at the hospital and treated.

State officials, however, concluded that Rockwell didn’t meet the criteria to be hospitalized against his will, despite a doctor’s report that Rockwell presented a higher-than-average risk to commit future criminal acts.

To hold a patient against his will, a mental health professional must find that the person, because of a mental disorder, is an imminent threat to others or himself, or is gravely disabled.

Rockwell refused to stay at the hospital. He was released with two weeks of medication, $40, and orders to go to a shelter.

He never made it to the shelter. Seattle paramedics took Rockwell to a hospital after he told them he was hearing voices and he was confused. Rockwell was later moved to an evaluation and treatment center in Mukilteo.

Meanwhile, prosecutors were alerted that Rockwell could be released back into the community again without a safety net. In March they filed a new charge against him. He was arrested as soon as he was released from the Mukilteo clinic, which also couldn’t keep him against his will.

Rockwell was once again sent to Western State Hospital in an effort to get him ready for prosecution. Doctors said he still wasn’t competent to assist with his own defense or to understand the new charge against him. They noted that Rockwell’s symptoms are resistant to treatment. Nevertheless, they recommended that Rockwell be prescribed a different medication, one he’d responded to in the past.

Rockwell reportedly agreed to take the medication, but refused to have his blood drawn. Doctors wouldn’t prescribe the medication unless they could monitor the dosage through blood tests.

Prosecutors refiled the robbery charge in August and attempted to persuade a judge to order that Rockwell be forced to take the medication and have his blood drawn. A Snohomish County Superior Court judge refused to sign the order, saying she wasn’t provided enough evidence to prove that there was a substantial likelihood that the medication would help restore Rockwell’s competency.

Once again prosecutors dropped the criminal charges. And once again a judge found that Rockwell was a potential candidate for civil commitment at the state hospital. He was ordered back to the hospital for another evaluation.

In late September, Lankford learned that her son finally had been civilly committed to the hospital.

She knows little else about what is happening because the law also protects her son’s medical privacy.

Officials with the state Attorney General’s Office refused to confirm for The Herald that they had filed a petition to have Rockwell committed or to discuss what had changed in his case this time around.

They said privacy laws prevent them from discussing the status of any patient admitted to the hospital. There are no documents in the criminal court file that indicate that Rockwell is being held at the hospital.

Dr. Marylouise Jones, the clinical operations director for the hospital, couldn’t speak specifically about Rockwell’s treatment. However, she said in general once people are admitted staff immediately begin preparing a plan for the patient’s return to the community. That’s important because once a person doesn’t meet the criteria to be held in the hospital, the law requires their release, she said. Many patients will need assistance with housing and medical treatment. Jones said it is important that hospital staff work with the regional support networks, which administer the mental health services in the community.

Lankford said she’s spoken to her son. He said he’s going to be held for six months, but told her he wasn’t being moved to the civil commitment ward. Getting concrete answers from him is difficult, though. Most of the time his thoughts are scattered by his illness. Sometimes, though, there are glimmers. He asks about his daughters. He wants to talk with his mom about her dog.

Lankford has written letters to hospital officials to get more answers.

She wants her son to get treatment, not just medication. She wants there to be a plan for him when he’s released. Lankford wants lawmakers and decision makers to take notice that more needs to be done for her son and people like him.

She points to a model law drafted by Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit that works toward providing timely and effective treatment for those living with mental illnesses. The center’s model law sets forth criteria for holding a person for court-ordered treatment while still maintaining his civil rights.

Lankford notes that the criteria addresses not only when a person is a danger to himself or others or is gravely disabled but there are provisions for those who are stuck in the “revolving door” of jail stays and hospitalizations. The model law also expands the role family members can take in seeking to help their loved one, she said.

Lankford is hopeful that her son’s story will inspire more dialogue and changes that will prevent needless tragedies.

“I only hope we can begin to speak of it, to debate the subject, to reason through it, shine some light on it, and in the end give Josh and others the help they need and deserve, so that they may find their own voice again,” Lankford said.

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

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