A MOTHER'S FIGHT: PART I - 2011 by Carole M.

To: Oregon State Legislature
Re: My Son
Date: March 18, 2011

My son was lodged in Marion County Jail for 16 months (charged with Burglary 2 and giving false information to the police). After the judge ordered an aid and assist evaluation, my son waited nearly three months before being transferred to the Oregon State Hospital (OSH) for an aid and assist evaluation. As a person living with mental illness, this was not his first involvement with Oregon's (flawed, inadequate) mental health and criminal justice systems.

At OSH, he recently passed his "aid and assist" test. He was discharged from OSH and transported back to jail where he awaits another court date. Recently, I wrote a letter to the Director of Consumer and Family Services at OSH about my son. These are some of the concerns I shared:

An interdisciplinary team meeting was scheduled at OSH for my son. That same week he was transferred back to jail, before the meeting could take place. That meeting should have taken place at OSH before he was discharged. I had planned to attend. He and his care team would have been there. His evaluation, medical progress, legal situation, and his options would have been discussed. Also, he was receiving dental treatment and had another appointment scheduled. Because of the sudden discharge, this treatment was never completed. This is one example of the lack of coordination between agencies. This system needs to be improved to put the best interest of patients first.

I spoke with my son's attorney the day he was discharged. She wasn't sure what was going on with him or when his court date would be. She said she would check into it and get back to me. It's almost impossible to talk with staff, counselors, and medical personnel at the jail, even when my son has signed waivers. There are no realistic family communications systems in jail. Visitation is limited one time a week for 30 minutes. Visitors speak on a dirty phone through plexiglas wall in a small, bleak room. Mail is limited to postcards only.

In comparison, OSH patients are allowed visitors six days a week for one-and-one half hours and visits are face to face in open, more human visiting areas. Patients can write and receive letters. Family members can communicate with staff and attend meetings.

In jail, my son has been over-medicated (sedated) for convenience. A jail is not a medical facility and only minimally addresses medical issues. 

While at OSH, with his medication reduced, he did very well. He had a good doctor and an interdisciplinary treatment team. He wasn't belligerent with staff and wasn't involved in any altercations. Staff members remarked on how well he was doing and how cooperative he was.

However, instead of encouraging him, the system sets him up to fail. His medical condition, his ability to stay well, his willingness to stay clean, and his determination not to reoffend are all compromised by taking away the long term care and support he needs to become increasingly responsible and independent.

Marion County (jail and health department) may have his name on their caseload list, but they do not have the resources to provide the services he really needs. When under Marion County's mental health system, he didn't have regular doctor visits, no real safety net existed, and he's been left on his own in the community - to sink or swim - without any true transitional support.

He has been turned away from Salem Hospital's emergency department. He was self-aware enough to understand that he needed medical attention, managed to make it to the hospital, and presented himself to hospital staff. Although he was in crisis and seeking help, he was turned away (back to the streets). They said he wasn't in "imminent danger" (even though his mind was in crisis).

It breaks my heart to know he must hit rock bottom (again), commit criminal acts (again), and "become a danger to himself or others" (again) in order to receive even short term mental health care - IF he isn't shot or killed by police or criminals (again).

What kind of a system do we have where a person must commit a crime and plead "insanity" in a court of law before receiving the medical treatment they need?

Imagine if cancer patients were in the same situation. What if they were required to become desperate, self-destructive, and criminally active before they could access and receive the medical treatment and care that they required? Then there would be a public outcry.

People living with mental illness also deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. They deserve to have the support and professional care that anyone with a chronic illness should receive, including a logical continuum of care. The individual, his or her family, and the entire community would benefit.

When my son was a little boy, he never said, "Mom, when I grow up I want to be a criminal." A jail is not meant to be a treatment facility. A plea bargain and probation are enticing options to him. No one wants to be locked up or stigmatized. From the revolving door perspective, he will end up back on the streets, homeless, or rooming with bedbugs and cockroaches in some outrageously expensive and inhumane "placement." Speaking from past experience, that lifestyle also includes self-medication and associations with people who do not have his best interests at heart. He will spiral downward until he has another psychotic break, commits a crime, is injured or killed. If he isn't killed, he is likely to be arrested and jailed (again). Statistically, he is also likely to live 25 years less than if he were not a person with a mental illness. He is also at a high risk for suicide.

My son is an intelligent, creative, 35-year old man who deserves a chance to live a better life than I've described above. He needs appropriate medical and therapeutic treatment to become stabilized. It takes time to become well and master the skills necessary to address and replace long term habits, perceptions, and behaviors. 

I believe my son has the ability to change, to become a healthy and productive member of society, and that he deserves a chance for happiness, companionship, and fulfillment in his life. We give lip service about the "the civil rights of the mentally ill." What about the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? These are all things he wishes for himself, and that I wish for him.

This is America.

Sincerely, Carole M.


Marion County Jail, Salem, Oregon

Marion County Jail, Salem, Oregon