Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mentally ill man in Texas, who was supposed to be in jail 45 days, ends up there six months

From the Dallas Morning News Problem Solver column:

Nicholas Sauve says he talks to angels in his Dallas County Jail cell.

The severely schizophrenic man has had months alone to do so. Arrested for shoving his mother against a car, he was sentenced in September to 45 days in jail.

Six months have passed. He is still in a cell in the West Tower Jail. During a jailhouse interview last week, he drummed his long, dirty fingernails against his nose and cheek and questioned why he couldn't go home.

"Why am I still here?" he asked, his eyes flitting from left to right. "They're all criminals for keeping me here. It's on their flesh and spirit. I'm a holy angel. I don't sin."

The legal filings in Sauve's case show he hasn't been lost in the criminal justice system since his arrest June 12. But the delays in his case are readily apparent.

"For a very complicated case, it can take this long," said Michael Noyes, the county probation director. "If it wasn't this complicated, he would have been gone in a month and a half."

Complications are not an acceptable excuse to Janis Sauve, who contacted The Dallas Morning News seeking help and was referred to the DMN Problem Solver. Numerous reports and studies have criticized how psychiatric and medical care is handled for jail inmates.

"I want my son to be safe and not die in jail," she said. "I have nightmares as he disintegrates from this disease."

John Dornheim, a board member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Dallas, said the entire case sounded as if it might have been misidentified. "It sounds like he should be in a mental health court," he said. "Those judges and district attorneys are very familiar with mental illness and chemical dependency. This is the first I've heard of a case this bizarre. I hear of delays, but not like this."

Nicholas Sauve, 28, was diagnosed as severely schizophrenic with sensory hallucinations when he was a teen. But his mother believes he had always been ill. "I had medical records when he was 6 years old where he saw objects moving," she said.

He was hospitalized at Green Oaks in Dallas and in state hospitals in Terrell and Wichita Falls several times. While that was hard enough on the family, things grew worse in 2008. Sauve began resisting taking his medications as prescribed. He also abused other substances.

Last May, he fled a Mental Health Mental Retardation facility in Sherman. The Texas Department of Public Safety issued a missing persons report and searched for him with dogs and helicopters.

Finally, authorities found him on a sidewalk in Tulsa, Okla. "He ate because a worker there brought him bags of hamburgers. We were frantic. It was terrible," his mother said. "He didn't know how to call, because the area code was different."

Within two weeks of returning home, he argued with his mother about pills. "He had a bottle in his hands," she said. "I took it away and tried to put it in the glove compartment. He shoved me aside to try and get the bottle, and that was the assault. There were some red marks on my back where I was against the door. They weren't even bruises. I called the police because he was in psychosis, but they took him to jail for assault. He should be in the hospital as a patient, not in jail as a felon."

Sauve was evaluated by jail psychiatrists on June 22, July 7 and Aug. 27, according to a letter outlining an investigation into his care by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. "He was found to have no evidence of psychosis or mania. [He] was not prescribed any medication and was transferred to general population," stated the letter that Janis Sauve received from Adan Munoz Jr., executive director of the commission.

During the August evaluation, Sauve told officials that he had discontinued his medications because he did not feel he needed them. The decision to trust Sauve's judgment and not medicate him infuriates his friends and family.

"I knew him when he could write poems, paint, sculpt. And now sometimes he doesn't recognize me," said Billy Elrod of Irving, a friend who has visited him in jail. "When he doesn't get his medicine, it hurts him. Every time he goes, the person we get back is only a part of who he was before. If we don't get him back soon, we'll never have him again."

To handle Sauve's case, the court appointed attorney Ezekiel Tyson. On Sept. 15, after three months in jail with no medications, Sauve pleaded guilty to assault causing bodily injury. It was the second felony on his record; the first was a burglary charge from 1999.

"He does not have any reasonable comprehension of the 'plea bargain' agreement and its consequences for his life," his mother said.

Tammy Kemp, deputy chief of family violence for the district attorney's office, declined to comment. Sauve's attorney did not return numerous calls requesting comment.

Sauve questions why he didn't get the deal he was offered. "Wasn't I supposed to go home after 47 days or so?" he asked. "I thought I was going home. I keep asking if I can go home, and they keep telling me I'm going home."

After Sauve's plea was entered, the court ordered another psychiatric evaluation. That report was completed 20 days later. The court changed his probationary terms from a halfway house to a Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility, a drug treatment program for felons better known as "Safe P."

The probation department then prepared documents and sent them to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. This took until Oct. 27, 42 days after his plea bargain. But delays for special-needs prisoners in the Safe P program meant he still wasn't moved.

"There are only limited beds. It's such a special population, there is always a wait," said Dr. Teresa Williams, assistant director of the probation department. "It's a shorter wait than there used to be, but there is still a wait."

That wait took another month. Sauve was finally ready to go as scheduled on Nov. 20. But when the date came, his admission was rejected because a medication he was taking was "problematic."

Williams and Noyes, the county probation director, say there was no way to know beforehand that the medication was an issue.

"This is an incredibly complicated issue in regards to moving people into Safe P," Williams said. "We have a list of drugs they won't take, but it is not all-inclusive. It's one of the most complicated things to try and manage. It happened and we immediately got it resolved."

Meanwhile, Sauve lost his place in the program. The next available slot didn't open for 21/2 months. Sauve remained in jail.

Finally, Feb. 2 arrived. On that date, Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials told the probation department they "could not admit him because of his mental state," Williams said.

At that point, the probation department turned the case back to the court. "The last thing I've seen in any record is they ordered a competency evaluation," Williams said. "The court will direct us on what services can or cannot be provided."

That hearing was scheduled for state District Judge Don Adams' docket last Thursday. But it didn't happen. Adams was on vacation.

Meanwhile, Sauve and his family and friends wait. "I was told that if he can't comply with the requirements, that he'd spend five years in the state pen," his mother said. "I think there has to be some leeway. He's mentally ill. He needs to be in the hospital."