Broward County

For Forgotten Soldier, a march through mental health gauntlet

FILE--U.S. Army soldiers  walk to where they will board buses to fly home to Fort Hood, Texas after being one of the last American combat units to exit from Iraq on Dec. 15, 2011 at Camp Virginia, near Kuwait City, Kuwait.
FILE--U.S. Army soldiers walk to where they will board buses to fly home to Fort Hood, Texas after being one of the last American combat units to exit from Iraq on Dec. 15, 2011 at Camp Virginia, near Kuwait City, Kuwait. GETTY IMAGES

They call him the Forgotten Soldier — although actually he served in the Marines.

At 59, his lawyers say, he suffers from dementia and traumatic brain injuries and can barely talk, walk or take care of himself. But for years he became a human shuttlecock, batted to and fro between jail and state hospitals and mental health facilities.

Attorneys in the Broward Public Defender’s Office say the man — whose advocates ask that he not be identified — personifies the way the United States is ill-serving a vulnerable population, the growing ranks of individuals, many of them veterans, coping with early-onset dementia. They say it is particularly shocking that it happened in Broward, a county that prides itself on its progressiveness, and pioneered the nation’s first felony mental health court.

“This is a five-alarm alert to the community that says your mother and father are not safe,” said Howard Finkelstein, Broward’s elected public defender.

Frustrated and discouraged by his plight, Chief Assistant Public Defender Owen McNamee and Assistant Public Defender Douglas Brawley — also the man’s attorney — wrote a letter outlining his trek through the system. It was sent to the Department of Children & Families, to judges and to county commissioners in hopes that more money will be fed into the system to ensure caring treatment of those with similar needs.

“The Forgotten Soldier is just the beginning of the dementia avalanche that is coming our way,” the public defenders wrote. “The Florida mental health system is completely ill-equipped to handle this crisis.”

Circuit Judge Mark Speiser, in whose courtroom the case landed for a time, agrees that the man was “completely out of it” and “couldn’t take care of himself.” Nonetheless, he considers the letter from the lawyers “insulting” and says the intent of the court was to get him help.

IN THE LABRYNTH

The Marine, originally from Wisconsin, worked in construction. He was in the service for four years. He has a long rap sheet of petty crimes, mostly for drugs and trespassing.

His life entered its current labyrinth on Jan. 30, 2011. On that day, he was homeless and wandering in Broward County, wearing a hospital ID bracelet he had gotten the day before. He had gashes on his face. He walked up to a house and pushed open the door before the alarmed homeowner pulled it shut. The man then walked down the street as if nothing was amiss.

The man had “no intent” to commit a crime, Brawley said. He was simply confused — a product of his dementia.

Nonetheless he was arrested and charged with burglary of an occupied dwelling, a felony, and brought before the felony mental health court.

The court is considered a trailblazer, and over the years has been praised as a model for other jurisdictions. Finklestein, a strong early advocate, believes its focus has shifted in recent years from compassionately handling those with mental illnesses to treating their illnesses solely so they can be made ready for trial and then punished.

“It’s a complete shame,” he said. “The purpose of this court is to treat people with integrity and that’s not happening.”

Others, including the Broward state attorney’s office, disagree. They point out that while the court does strive to secure treatment for those with mental illnesses, having a mental illness is not — and should not be — a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card. And that individuals with mental illnesses can rightfully be held accountable for their crimes.

Speiser said he ordered Broward Behavioral Health — which contracts with DCF — to find appropriate placement for the man. That seemingly didn’t happen to anyone’s satisfaction.

The problem, according to Speiser and Circuit Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren, his counterpart in misdemeanor mental health court, is one of “resources.”

“People are dying. People are suffering. People are getting incarcerated,” said Lerner-Wren. “We’ve got to invest in the mental health system.”

Here is what the lawyers say happened: In April 2011, the man was put in the custody of DCF and taken to Florida State Hospital, where he was, the attorneys wrote, “committed with murderers and rapists with mental health issues.”

But the man’s problem was not mental illness. It was dementia.

The hospital concluded, after a very long stay, that he could not be “restored to competence,” and sent him back to court. He was taken to the Broward County Jail. The court ordered that he be sent to the closest mental health facility that accepts patients under the Baker Act, Florida’s involuntary commitment law. Again, he didn’t meet the criteria, and he was sent back to jail.

At one point, DCF was instructed to initiate an investigation by its Adult Protective Services office, which pursues elder abuse or neglect, or can aid in finding homes for vulnerable adults. But DCF concluded the man was not a “vulnerable adult.”

“He became a human ping-pong ball,” Brawley said. The back-and-forth happened at least three more times, the lawyers say.

Silvia Quintana, the chief executive officer of Broward Behavioral Health, would not comment directly on the man’s case, citing privacy laws pertaining to health matters.

She did say that her organization is “part of a larger system” and works with different departments that are governed by various laws.

“The focus should be collaborating and resolving barriers that will help better facilitate treatment for individuals with special needs,” she said.

McNamee said a problem is there used to be more assisted living facilities in the community, but many have since closed, limiting the options for people like the Forgotten Soldier.

GUARDIAN ASSIGNED

The Forgotten Soldier’s melancholy story has a merciful ending — to the extent that such stories can end mercifully. The letter from the lawyers elicited a response from Mike Carroll, the interim secretary of DCF.

In the letter dated Oct. 14, Carroll said a guardian had been assigned to the man’s case, and that efforts were being made to pursue “any and all available benefits and other assistance and appropriate placement for the continued care of the individual.”

The man was placed in a nursing home in Coral Springs. There, Brawley, McNamee and Finklestein hope, he can live and be looked after the rest of his life.

“The system failed the Forgotten Soldier,” said Brawley. “We don’t want to see this happen again.”

Finklestein, like his subordinates, hopes the letter will force the hand of the state to allocate more money for programs and facilities to treat those with mental illnesses and dementia. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness Broward, Florida ranks 49th in spending, at about $41 per resident.

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