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A mother tried to tell the state her son was mentally ill and violent. Help came too late.

Jul 4, 2018

Last week, a 17-year old student opened fire at Santa Fe High School. He left 10 dead and 10 more injured.

With every mass shooting in the United States comes a cry to address the issue of mental health. Lawmakers say we need to identify these troubled kids — and get them mental health resources before something terrible happens.

But what about when families try to get help before their child becomes violent? In some cases, treatment comes too late. 

Paula Reeves, whose son with severe mental illness is now in prison, and Michael Perlin, professor emeritus at New York Law School, have seen first hand the failings which occur when they the state’s criminal justice system is forced to double as a mental health service provider.

A son lost in the system

Reeves’ son was diagnosed with emerging Bipolar 1 — also known as manic depressive disorder — at a very young age. He responded to medication but then would stop taking it. When her son became a teenager, he began to show signs of what she now believes were delusions.

Reeves said when she tried to get help for her son, resources were sparse and difficult to obtain. She believes the state’s outpatient and residential programs don't hold patients long enough to stabilize them. Reeves described it as “a mockery of a system."   

In 2015 Reeves’ son began threatening physical violence against his parents and refusing help.

Reeves calls the state's outpatient and residential programs a "mockery of a system."

She was afraid he would injure himself or another individual, and pulled petitions for involuntary commitment in Michigan.

“This one was an unusually long detailed petition, it was five pages,” Reeves said. “Normally, I try to put as little as possible into them, but it was so serious that I wrote some of the threats he was making to me and then I had his father forward the texts that my son was making to his father where he said he would ‘slaughter his father.’”

The court granted Reeves’ petition and her son was later picked up by local officers, given a security check, and driven to Common Ground facilities in Pontiac, Michigan for an evaluation.

Reeves drove to the facility and spoke with a case worker, warning that she believed her son would harm someone if he was not quickly hospitalized and medicated.

Later that day, Reeves’ son was arrested for stabbing a janitor at Common Ground with a three-inch knife. He was charged with intent to commit murder and possession of a weapon. It is still unknown whether he found the knife in the facility or brought it in somehow.

Reeves’ son sat in jail for two years awaiting sentencing, almost always without treatment for his mental illness.

“What happened during that period of time was he was moved from the mental health wing to a more general population, and within I think 24 or 48 hours, someone had split my sons head open. And then my son, because he was floridly psychotic, started making phone calls to the district judge and started saying ethnically inappropriate things, trying to threaten and intimidate them. He eventually picked up an ethnic intimidation charge.”

Eventually, her son pled guilty but mentally ill. That charge means he was able to formulate the intent to harm someone and was responsible for his crime even though he was mentally ill. This plea sent her son to prison.

“My son should have been found clearly not guilty by reason of insanity,” Reeves said.

Guilty but mentally ill

The verdict 'guilty but mentally ill' has roots in the state of Michigan. It was made into state law following a 1975 Michigan Supreme Court case People vs. McQuillen.

According to Michigan case law, the verdict was intended “to protect the public from violence inflicted by persons with mental illness.”

But Perlin, a professor and co-founder of Mental Disability Law and Policy Associates, thinks the ruling is a complete fraud.

According to Perlin, when an individual is found to be 'not guilty by reason of insanity,' they have committed an act that would be crime if they were “responsible for it.”

It's different when an individual is found 'guilty but mentally ill.' In that case, they are guilty, they are mentally ill, and they do not meet the statutory standard in that jurisdiction. They are not considered “illegally insane” of the crime in question.

Perlin said this verdict misleads the public, the courts, and the defense attorney who believe individuals found guilty but mentally ill receive some sort of special treatment post-conviction. He said that's not the case.

According to Reeves, if her son had been found not guilty by reason of insanity, he would have been taken to a secure environment at a forensic center with guards who are well-trained in psychiatric disorders and doctors who have access to much better medication.

"He just feels hopeless. He feels that he is never going to get out."

Instead, found guilty but mentally ill, Reeve’s son was sent to prison. He now lives in a residential area with other prisoners suffering from mental health disorders and is taking medication, but spends his days in a cement block room.

“He just feels hopeless,” Reeves said. “He feels that he is never going to get out.”

Mental health and mass shootings

Whenever there is a mass shooting in the news, some elected officials immediately place blame on one “crazy” individual. When Reeves hears this, she is in disbelief.

“It makes me feel we have absolute idiots at the helm of the ship. This the 21st century, we have science proving that what we call 'mental' is actually a physical disorder of the brain,” Reeves said.

“We still call people who have schizophrenia —  even though there is so much evidence to the contrary— crazy, insane, monsters. How do we get laws in place and funding for mental health services if we don’t have our top leaders, our policy makers, understanding and educated about these issues?”

Minding Michigan is Stateside’s ongoing series that examines mental health issues in our state.

This story was originally broadcast on May 23rd, 2018.

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