Tuesday, October 21, 2008

9-year-old Florida girl with mental illness arrested during school

From the Fort Myers News-Press in Florida:

The 9-year-old was out of control.

She was spitting at her teachers, kicking at an officer and lashing out against efforts to restrain her, Fort Myers police said.

She went from a timeout room to a criminal holding cell Oct. 14, and faces two counts of felony battery against her teachers at Royal Palm Exceptional School in Fort Myers.

But the girl's mother, Tarina Williams, said the arrest was extreme, especially considering her daughter has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Royal Palm officials said every other alternative at the special-needs school had been exhausted. At the Department of Children and Families, word of the girl's needs didn't surface until Oct. 15.

After her arrest, the girl, who is not being named by The News-Press because of her age, was back in her Lehigh Acres home with Williams, 32, who said she is at a loss. Her daughter also is diagnosed with obsessive oppositional disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She was transferred to Royal Palm, Williams said, because staff at her previous school couldn't manage her.

"I understand she has problems," Williams said. "She's emotional, she's uptight, and she can be a lot to handle. But she's 9 years old, and she doesn't belong in jail."

Last year, the county's Juvenile Assessment Center processed 19 children younger than 9 for criminal offenses. This year, there have been nine - and 13 who were 10; 21 who were 11.

Williams' daughter was in school Tuesday after a suspension for a prior battery on a teacher. That teacher decided not to press charges. Two hours after she arrived, Fort Myers police Officer Keith Nicholson was called in.

"(The girl) has thrown chairs at the teacher, threatened to stab the teacher, slapped the phone from her hand as she tried to call for help, kicked the teacher and kicked the door into the teacher," Nicholson reported. "... We have tried a multitude of interventions to no success as (she) continues to escalate her behavior."

DCF spokeswoman Erin Gillespie said none of those interventions involved contacting DCF or Lee Mental Health, the county's core agency for mental health treatment.

After further researching the case, the Fort Myers Police Department has issued the following statement today: “The girl committed two felonies with victims wanting to pursue charge. There was a long history of attempts to deal with the child through the family and the school. This was the end of the line, and it is a very fine line we walk. Now, she can be mandated by a judge to get the assistance she needs.”

School district spokesman Joe Donzelli said it's not that simple. Arrest, he said, is the last option in any case for school staff.

"It's not the goal of the school to have a 9-year-old arrested," Donzelli said. "But there are limitations to what the district can or cannot do. A school district cannot do everything for everybody, and in certain situations, you have to bring in outside assistance.

"Unfortunately, it takes more than picking up a phone and calling an agency. Unfortunately, the way the system is set up, you have to get the legal community involved in order to get the dominoes lined up in order to get the child the help they need."

He said Royal Palm teachers have been trained to educate students with behavioral problems, with a goal of having them return to their original school.

Williams hoped the school would be the best solution for her daughter. The family recently moved from Hendry County, and Williams and her husband have lost three jobs, she said, because they have had to leave work to tend to the girl's school outbursts. Her oldest son also suffers from mental illness, she said. The girl received treatment at a clinic in LaBelle.

Williams said after her daughter was prescribed several medications with no success, doctors began suggesting experimental drugs. Williams didn't agree to that, so treatment ended and the family moved to Lehigh Acres. Williams said she tried to get help from the Ruth Cooper campus of Lee Mental Health, but couldn't get an appointment.

John Gervickas, children's mental health specialist with DCF, spoke with Williams twice Wednesday after The News-Press inquired about the case. He said an appointment for an assessment is being made. While there was DCF involvement with the family before for a claim of neglect, the girl's mental state was never at issue.

Michael McNally, vice president of community relations at Lee Mental Health, said he could not speak specifically on this case, but "given the history and everything else, that would be very surprising to me," McNally said of the girl not receiving help at the agency.

Lee Mental Health serves more adults than children and, while the number of adult patients admitted has increased with the population, he said, treating all children who come hasn't been an issue.

His agency would have had to accept the girl had officer Nicholson chosen to forcibly admit her for mental health care under a law called the Baker Act. But interim Fort Myers Police Chief Doug Baker said there are many stipulations for a Baker Act, especially for children. He was not familiar enough with this case Wednesday to say exactly what happened, but he reiterated the school district's position.

"Sometimes, it is good to get the juvenile court system involved because they can sanction certain types of treatment," Baker said.

"I'm very disappointed with the situation," Williams said. "They're supposed to be qualified to handle her, and they could have restrained her and called me before it ever got to that point. I'm not taking up for her for what she did - that was wrong - but I just don't think jail was the best option."

She wishes there were more services available for parents in her situation.

The state attorney's office will ultimately decide whether the felony charges will stick.

Bill Naylor, director of the Juvenile Assessment Center, said his office often works with the state attorney's office to have cases involving younger juveniles diverted to service programs, especially in cases where mental health is at issue.

"With budget cuts coming from every angle, we have less and less mental health services in the community, and schools are very limited in what they can provide," he said. "That means parents can have a tough time getting services. In the adult system, they have mental health court, similar to drug court. It would be wonderful if we could get the same in the juvenile system, but again, we lack the funding."