Victoria teen caught in clogged mental health system

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Dec. 2, 2017 at 9:48 p.m.
Updated Dec. 3, 2017 at 9:38 a.m.

Tyler Shelton's yearbook picture from the 2014-2015 school year.

Tyler Shelton's yearbook picture from the 2014-2015 school year.   Contributed photo for The Victoria Advocate

A teen with mental illness is languishing in the Victoria County Jail two months after being declared incompetent to stand trial.

His family said his illness was overlooked until he allegedly injured jailers who were trying to prevent him from injuring himself.

His story - particularly his wait for treatment - is common even after the Legislature found $300 million in the budget to address such situations.

"He's starting to lose hope," Tyler Shelton's mother, Kristen Hermann, said.

In October, a psychiatrist and then a judge determined Shelton, 19, was incompetent to stand trial. That means he doesn't understand the nature of his charge and can't assist in his defense.

Because of this, Shelton has been ordered to one of the state's mental health hospitals.

Hermann said he's been ordered to a state mental health hospital that has maximum security.

The average wait time for a bed for an inmate requiring maximum security was 144 days as of Nov. 27, said Christine Mann, a spokeswoman for Texas' Health and Human Services Commission.

"How long it takes is based on the patient's needs," Mann said, "so for example, if a patient is geriatric, there might be a longer waitlist. If the patient has intellectual or a developmental disability, there's not many spots for that. There's a number of factors."

Shelton was arrested in August after his family called the sheriff's office when the Victoria West High School graduate wandered onto some property.

His family said Shelton was not taking medication for bipolar I disorder and thought the property belonged to him.

While waiting for his burglary of a building case to be presented by the district attorney's office to a grand jury, Shelton fastened a T-shirt into a noose and injured jailers who tried to get it away from him, the sheriff's office said.

Both Shelton and some jailers were hospitalized afterward.

It wasn't until after that incident that he was evaluated by a psychiatrist.

Shelton's attorney, Jordan Fries, said when he last visited his client a month ago, he had resumed taking medication.

Hermann said it is not the medication Shelton was prescribed when he was diagnosed shortly before he turned 18. She described her son's current medication as a "chemical restraint."

And Shelton's bond remains more than $400,000.

"I could file a motion for a bond reduction, and that's something we might consider, but I don't foresee that being successful," Fries said.

The district attorney's office has three years from the date of the offense to present the remaining charges against Shelton: seven counts of aggravated assault of a public servant and one count of assault of a public servant.

"I have a duty to present cases that are proven," District Attorney Stephen Tyler said Friday. "It's not difficult to prove when you have multiple eyewitnesses, you have a video and officers are hurt."

Tyler said he's not criminalizing mental illness, though.

"I don't criminalize anything. The Legislature criminalizes criminal conduct, and I am sworn to enforce the laws," he said.

Defendants are presumed competent or sane unless a defense attorney can prove otherwise, and Shelton's case and/or cases will be put on hold until he regains competency, he said.

Regardless, Fries said he and Shelton's family feel frustrated waiting for him to get to a place where his needs will be better met.

"That's nothing against the jail. It's just common sense that a state hospital can better attend to his needs," Fries said.

Shelton's wait is like another man's one county over.

Matthew Pillow, 28, waited four months to go to North Texas State Hospital in Vernon after being declared incompetent to stand trial, according to an Advocate story published in August.

Friday, Pillow was not in the jail in Jackson County, where he stands charged with brandishing a knife when an Edna police officer confronted him after he shoplifted.

Through Senate Bill 1, the Legislature gave the Health and Human Services Commission $300 million to construct and repair the state mental health hospitals.

It plans to break ground on the first of many such projects in 2019.

Then, it will cost $4.5 million to build a new stand-alone maximum security unit at Rusk State Hospital, about 290 miles from Victoria. Rusk State Hospital and the North Texas State Hospital in Vernon, also hundreds of miles from Victoria, are the only two state hospitals in Texas that can accept maximum security patients.

Greg Hansch, the public policy director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Texas, said some ways to lessen the burden on state hospitals in the meantime came out of the last legislative session, most notably SB 1326.

It requires the sheriff's office to notify a magistrate about a defendant suspected of having a mental illness or intellectual disability within 12 hours.

Before Sept. 1, the sheriff's office had 72 hours to notify the magistrate about that.

Additionally, SB 1326 gives jails the authority to try to restore a defendant's competency to stand trial while in the jail by partnering with a local mental health authority.

Hansch said that may be feasible in a rural area such as the Crossroads.

"It may be. It's really a local decision, and it would be something that was locally administered. I don't think it's the panacea to addressing the forensic wait list. I think it can be an option," he said.

In the meantime, Hermann gets a phone call from her son every night before bed, and every night she frets over what to say to him. She said he's toiling away in a single cell, reading a book full of guitar sheet music by George Strait. She guesses he's trying to learn how to play them, but he's without his guitar.

"I keep telling him, 'It should be anytime,' but after a while that gets old," Hermann said.

She pictured Shelton this time of year studying diesel mechanics at a vocational school and helping his twin sister trim the Christmas tree - two hopes dashed for now.

"We haven't put up a tree yet. It's pretty hard to get in the spirit when not everybody is here," Hermann said.


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