Even with recent reforms, mental illness still criminalized

Alfred Crain Ramirez II sits in a bunk at the Salvation Army and talks about shoes he received from his mother and how they are more comfortable than the shoes he was wearing. Ramirez is in jail for violating a protective order.

A homeless man with a history of mental illness is in the Victoria County Jail, accused of sending his estranged mother a Facebook message.

Police arrested Alfred Crain Ramirez II, 27, at the Salvation Army on May 5 on a warrant charging him with violating a protective order.

Court-at-Law 2 Judge Daniel Gilliam set Ramirez's bond at $2,000.

It is harder for people with mental illness who are jailed or homeless to seek and progress in their treatment, advocates say.

"The longer the delay, the worse the outcomes are for the individual," said Greg Hansch, public policy director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Texas.

Although the advocates did not have direct knowledge of Ramirez's case, some thought it might be difficult for people with mental illnesses to follow a judge's instructions.

"Frankly, I probably have to do a bit more research to comment on the protective order process and rules and statutes, but I guess I do have a concern it's possible that society is not appropriately factoring in mental health as they are issued," Hansch said.

In February, District Court Judge Jack Marr ordered Ramirez not to contact his mother or her family. Marr also ordered Ramirez not to go within 200 yards of the home in which he once lived with her. The order came a few days after a jury found Ramirez not guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The jury found Ramirez not guilty of aiming a loaded rifle at his parents during an argument, which he was accused of doing in 2015.

In an interview with the Victoria Advocate after the trial, the jury foreman, Dr. John P. Soule, expressed doubts about the validity of the elder Ramirezes' testimony and said at times they contradicted one another. In a letter to the judge, Soule wrote the younger Ramirez "needs mental help."

Ramirez's attorney, Arnold Hayden, had shown at trial that his client had received services for schizoaffective disorder through the local mental health authority, the Gulf Bend Center, until he turned 18. Then, Ramirez no longer qualified for CHIP, the state's children's health insurance program. He tried to apply for disability benefits, but his records were never sent to the Social Security Administration.

A few weeks after Ramirez was released from the jail, his mother reported to police that her son had messaged her on Facebook using an account with the name "Spike Hun" and commented on one of her photos.

She said she knew the account belonged to her son because he had written her letters from the jail and signed them as "Spike Hun."

On Facebook, Ramirez asked his mother for the telephone numbers of her family members and anyone else he could sell knives to. He had recently started working at a company that sells knives. He also offered to demonstrate the knives for his mother, according to court documents.

In an interview with the Advocate on Tuesday, Evelyn Ramirez said her son also had strangers contact her repeatedly to ask her for his Social Security card.

One of Victoria County District Attorney Stephen Tyler's assistants tried the case against Ramirez in February. However, Tyler said Tuesday that most protective orders prohibit one from communicating with the protected party even through a third party.

"He had an attorney, and what that attorney ought to have done is request those personal belongings for him," Tyler said.

Tyler added the DA's office is enforcing the law and is not equipped to solve all social issues.

The court appointed Hayden to represent Ramirez again. Hayden declined to comment because the case is ongoing. There are no upcoming hearings, and Ramirez faces up to a $500 fine and six months in jail if convicted.

Lisa Griffin, the president of the Victoria Area Homeless Coalition, said in a perfect world, Ramirez would have been assigned a case worker after he was released from the jail in February. That case worker would have been able to explain to him the parameters of the protective order.

"It's that ongoing case management that's really the most important piece for our people, for our friends who are living on the street," Griffin said. "It's not enough to just give them medication."

Although the Victoria Area Homeless Coalition offers financial assistance for those who need ID, it does not assist people who are homeless or mentally ill with bonding out of jail. The coalition does not have many resources.

"What we decided is our primary focus as a coalition is to be able to provide a service nobody else is providing, like help with IDs and birth certificates so people can get housed and employment," she said.

Tammy Gregory, who recently began working for Gulf Bend as a law enforcement navigator, attended a coalition board meeting Thursday. Griffin is optimistic Gregory will be able help people with mental illnesses who are being released from jail get connected to treatment in the future.

Evelyn Ramirez said she didn't open the Facebook messages from her son. She felt scared, and in some ways, she'd had enough.

"I have a lot of stress and anxiety, and I take my medication to keep me level, and he would always choose not to take his medication, even if I took him to Gulf Bend to try to get it cheaper," she said. "He would fight with me over it. He wouldn't get out of the car. He just wouldn't do it. I just had his father to take care of, too, and it was a 24/7 thing."

Ramirez's father, Alfredo Ramirez, 79, died of a heart attack June 6.

Andy Keller, a psychologist and the CEO and president of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, said although only a small percentage of people with mental illnesses are violent, he can understand why a family member would seek a protective order against another family member with a mental illness. He said sometimes caring for someone with a mental illness is harder than caring for someone with cancer.

"It's harder to live with them because they see things that aren't there and believe things that aren't true. People don't know what to do with that," Keller said.

And until recently, providers gave family members no answers.

"We tell families, 'Oh, we can't talk to you about this because of HIPAA (a patient privacy law).' we put the family off because we didn't know what to say," he said.

A group in New York City developed a program that teaches families how to respond when a loved one has a delusion. Twelve such programs exist in the Lone Star State, but the closest one is in Houston.

Hansch and Keller were also encouraged by the bipartisan support mental health reform received this past legislative session.

Senate Bill 292, for example, funds jail diversion programs.

They weren't surprised by Ramirez's story, but they think progress is possible - in the long term.

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Former Environment/Investigations Reporter

Jessica Priest worked for the Victoria Advocate from August 2012-September 2019, first as the courts reporter and then as the environment/investigations reporter. Read her work now at www.jessicapriest.me.

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