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18-year-old's jailing reveals huge hole in mental health system, advocates say

By JR Ortega
Oct. 15, 2011 at 5:15 a.m.

Gary and Tabitha Weaver adopted a son 17 years ago and later found out that he was born to an alcoholic mother. Jeremy suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and after years of struggling with the illness, Jeremy recently aged out of a San Antonio special needs school.

WHAT IS FETAL ALCOHOL SYNDROME?

Fetal alcohol syndrome, or any other alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder or birth defect is preventable and occurs when a mother drinks during pregnancy.

Facial abnormalities

Growth deficiency

Central nervous system dysfunction

Poor motor skills

Poor hand-eye coordination

Behavioral and learning problems

Difficulty with memory, attention and judgment

SOURCE; NATIONAL ORGANIZATION ON FETAL ALCOHOL SYNDROME

Resources

Here are some agencies that advocate for the mentally ill:

Texas Criminal Justice Coalition

Texas Mental Health Association

National Alliance on Mental Illness

http://www.criminaljusticecoalition.org

http://newsite.mhatexas.org

http://newsite.mhatexas.org/

Jeremy Weaver is not competent to stand trial.

But the Texas judicial system, too, lacks competency, his parents say - it has fallen far short of accommodating the mentally ill such as Weaver.

Now, 18-year-old Weaver passes his day in a Victoria County Jail cell, stuck in limbo for a crime he may or may not have committed. Either way, his story illustrates a serious flaw in society's care of the mentally ill, advocates say.

His story

"I didn't do it, mom. They're lying," Weaver's mother, Tabitha Weaver, recalled her adopted son saying in May.

Weaver, who was born mentally retarded and with mental illness, was arrested in May after two underage boys said he touched them inappropriately.

The boys and the boys' mother were friends of the family, Weaver's mother said.

"He was concerned enough about those young boys," she said.

He faces four counts of indecency with a child by contact, a second-degree felony.

Weaver was adopted by Tabitha and Gary Weaver when he was 4 months old. The husband and wife were unaware their son's biological mother drank while pregnant. The drinking led to their son's eventual birth with mental retardation and symptoms of fetal alcohol effect, which means he exhibit some but not all symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome.

He has an IQ of 55.

His incarceration has only deteriorated even more his damaged brain, his mother said.

Weaver's mother has noticed his drastic change in appearance in the five months he's been in jail.

His face is sunken. Already thin before, he has lost about 30 pounds.

"He doesn't look anything like he does in that picture," his mother said, nodding her face upward toward a photo sitting on the mantel of a 17-year-old Weaver.

Weaver's erratic behavior is nothing new.

Impulsive and explosive because of his disability, he has darted out of his home, left school and even attempted to get out of a moving car, his mother said.

Many days and nights Weaver's parents have patrolled the streets trying to find their son. He was always found, but generally in a bad situation.

Others have used him as a scapegoat, Weaver's mother said.

"People use him and take advantage of him because of his disability," she said.

These behaviors have been an issue throughout Weaver's childhood development, according to a court-appointed incompetency evaluation.

Dr. Joel Kutnick, who conducted the incompetency evaluation for the court in July, states in a 13-page report that Weaver has "severe behavioral problems."

Kutnick cites records from Gulf Bend Center and other medical facilities that show Weaver has diagnoses of mental retardation, attention deficit disorder, intermittent explosive disorder and encephalopathy, or degenerative brain damage, just to name a few.

Weaver could not understand why he was in jail or what the circumstances of his case were, even though he said he did, according to the evaluation report.

Through the cracks

Weaver is in a situation many mentally ill are stuck in.

The state has no hospital beds available for him, but at the same time, he sits in his coveralls next to the convicted and those waiting for their trial date, something he may never see.

Thus, he waits in his cell not because he's been convicted, but because it's the only holding area the state can offer.

"The Texas Legislature has not criminalized a condition. They have, however, criminalized conduct that harms others," District Attorney Steven Tyler said in an emailed statement.

Because of the nature of the offenses, Judge Robert Cheshire has ordered Weaver to Vernon State Hospital, a maximum-security north Texas state hospital.

Cheshire would not comment on the case because it's ongoing.

Weaver's mother rails against the ruling and insists her son is not a danger to society.

Before his recent problems, he was at Mission Road Developmental Center in San Antonio. He returned to Victoria in February because he "graduated" - essentially, he turned 18 and was no longer eligible for care.

The center's focus serves young adults with intellectual disabilities in a group home type atmosphere.

While there, Weaver was getting all the best help he could, his mother said.

She tried to move him into a group home in New Braunfels but a long waiting list stopped her.

He ended up back with his parents in Victoria, where he no longer received the same level of specialized care.

His mother cites a lack of mental health resources in the community.

"We contacted every agency in Victoria that we could think of," the mother said, frustrated. "There is no local help."

Statewide problem

Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a non-partisan nonprofit, said Weaver's case represents much broader problems throughout the state.

The continuing cuts to state mental health programs has left the mentally ill stuck in the criminal justice system, a "horrific unintended consequence," Yáñez-Correa said.

She described a system broken in three areas:

It's not helping the people who need it the most.

It's draining local resources.

It's not making communities safer.

The problems all go back to funding and resources, Yáñez-Correa said.

This past session, the Legislature cut $15 billion over the next two years, affecting all state agencies, including mental health services.

However, legislators have failed to realize jailing the mentally ill costs society far more in the long run, she said.

When the system changed

Mental health care changed when patients began being removed from institutions as a result of Community Mental Health Act of 1963, part of John F. Kennedy's New Frontier plan.

The idea was to federally fund community-based mental health programs and phase out bigger state hospitals, where many abuses occurred.

That goal was noble, but the change has left many mentally ill without care and behind bars, Yáñez-Correa said. The government failed in its promise to fund community-based services, she said.

Instead, mentally ill have "ended up in the county jails," she said.

Texas and other states do not have enough hospital beds to accommodate the mentally ill waiting to be transferred from jails.

The lack of hospital beds across the U.S. has been growing more dire during the past several decades.

About 12 public hospital beds were available per 100,000 population in Texas in 2005, according to a study conducted by the Treatment Advocacy Center, a U.S. nonprofit helping those with mental illness.

Fifty years earlier, about 340 public psychiatric beds were available per 100,000, nationally.

You don't have to be a math whiz to see the societal damage created by a drop from 340 to 12, mental health advocates say.

Another waiting list

Weaver's mother has called Vernon State Hospital to see why the process is taking so long.

"It's a six-month waiting list," Weaver's mother said, shaking her head.

George Filley III, an attorney in Victoria, represented Weaver in an earlier misdemeanor case. He is not aware of Weaver's pending case in particular, but he said managing to place the mentally ill in state hospitals is difficult in Texas.

"Our society attempts not to imprison the mentally ill, but when they are found incompetent, the state hospital doesn't have enough room," Filley said.

What's ahead

Once Weaver is transferred and if he regains competency, he will go to trial where he will confront his accusers and be judged by a jury, Tyler said.

However, the court-ordered mental evaluation concluded that, even with proper medication, Weaver will never regain competency.

Weaver's mother agrees.

"His cognitive skills are very low," she said.

So Weaver will become one of thousands of incompetent individuals not able to stand up for himself.

In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics released a study that showed 56 percent of state prisoners, 64 percent of local jail inmates and 45 percent of federal prisoners had symptoms of serious mental illness.

Weaver falls under this category, and this pains his mother.

"He's been to too many public places where kids of all ages have been," his mother said.

Weaver's mother is fighting to have Cheshire change the ruling to send Weaver to Mexia State School, which is a supported living center.

Cheshire could not comment on his order.

Weaver's mother believes the best situation is to be in an environment like Mexia, which promotes social interaction and assisted living.

If Weaver ever became competent, receiving a reduced sentence for the charges is unlikely, the district attorney said.

"Mental illness is also seldom an effective mitigating factor," he said.

Each offense could come with a sentence between 15 to 20 years, Tyler said, basing that estimate on his experience with Victoria County juries.

Because Weaver may never be competent, he may never get a fair trial. Neither will he roam free.

"He will tell you he didn't do it," his mother said adamantly.

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