Saturday, April 9, 2011

Mental Health

I went to the funeral yesterday in Waxahachie for Robert Morris.  He was my friend's father and a man that I had spent a lengthy amount of time on the phone with about his son.  As I've documented over the past few posts, we worked very hard to prevent the events that ultimately transpired, and we were unable to do so.

I've received numerous phone calls, e-mails, and posts on the blog from friends and strangers over the past week, offering words on consolation and encouragement.  I appreciate them all so very much.  But one of the phrases that I've heard from many was encouragement to not blame myself and that I should know I did all I could.

At the risk of sounding arrogant, I am terribly saddened by what happened, but I don't blame myself. I've gone over all of the options in my mind to see if there is anything I could have done differently, and I've literally come up with nothing.  Bob Morris and his wife did even more than I could have possibly done.  They consulted with me and exercised all the options provided to them under the law to protect themselves, but at the same time tried to balance that with caring and loving Joel.

The problem is that the brutal fact of the matter may be that protecting one's self and still caring for the interests of a mentally violent person may create an irreconcilable scenario.

The funeral yesterday was very poignant.  A dear friend of mine from high school and I made the four hour trip from Houston to Waxahachie and back and we talked at length about it.  The minister was a tremendous speaker, and surprisingly, he pulled no punches in talking about what had happened to cause Bob's death with candor.

He spoke of the Prodigal Son and pointed out that Bob had certainly been the loving and welcoming father, but that Joel just couldn't ever remain the remorseful son who wanted to return home and seek forgiveness.

The minister couldn't have been more accurate in his description, and the service truly seemed like a funeral for both Bob and Joel.

But the words that were uttered several times through the service were "the System failed Bob".

And ultimately, I suppose it did.

The "System" is a complicated machine.  Mental Health Care is convoluted and confusing when applied to the Criminal Justice System.  It is literally an element of criminal law that just can't seem to do anything right.  It is either being blasted for being too insensitive to the reality of Mental Illness when it comes to punishing people (as in the case of Andrea Yates).  Or it is being too "Politically Correct" and failing to take the bull by the horns to stop dangerous mentally ill people (Joel).

The whole situation has me very flummoxed.  Bob and I tried to get Joel locked up into a mental health care facility on several occasions over the past three years, and we often succeeded.  I think that we were both hopeful that the incident with Joel in the elevator might have actually been the key moment that we finally were able to make some progress with both Joel and the legal system.

When he tried to stab his eye out, he had proven himself to be a danger to himself and others.  He was put into psychiatric treatment custody.  No one had been permanently injured and Joel was finally getting the treatment he needed.

The problem was that Joel responded to his treatment.  He took his medication (against his will) and got back to being a rational human being again.  And Bob, like any loving father, welcomed his Prodigal Son back home.  Bob had gotten a protective order against Joel, as I had advised him to, but Joel had no home and no job.  He gave Joel shelter and a job.

And Joel had several good months, before he went off of his medication.

And then all Hell broke loose.

We exercised all the remedies available to us.  But the only true way to have kept Joel from hurting anyone would have been to lock him away somewhere that would guarantee that he never went off his medication.

We all know that would never have happened.

I guess what I'm saying here is that the reason "the System" fails so often in mental health issues is that because it is faced with an impossible situation.  How do you balance a dangerous person without just throwing them away for life?  Especially when they haven't committed a violent crime yet?

There are certainly things that the mental health system could do better.  And it should.  There should be more opportunities for the mentally ill to receive treatment if they can be guided toward it.

But in the situation with Joel, I just don't know.  He had a support network that cared about him and that support network did guide him to almost everything the State of Texas and mental health professionals could offer him.

But in the end, it was Joel who failed, and now he looks at the very real prospect of being locked away for the rest of his life where he can't hurt anyone else.  I don't think that any one of us wants that to be the only option, but it seems to be the only safe one.

I've been notified that Joel did have a "list" when he was arrested and that I was on it.  His father had been first on that list.  I was third.

I want Joel to be okay, but I want to be safe, too.  I want to always be there for my little boy like Bob was for Joel.  I want Joel to get the help he needs.

In the end, selfishly, I have to hope that he never sees the Light of Day.

But I don't feel guilty for wanting that.

I just can't.


Anonymous said...

The divide between what people see as a political issue (being tuff on crime) and what in reality is an issue of justice (that the mentally ill truly cannot be held responsible for their own decisions because they are not rational), is the problem that the other poster tried to point out, although his timing was terrible, in a post a few days ago.

When we see the mentally ill for what they are, as opposed to just thinking they need to be put down, we will be one step closer to justice.

It's a shame that it takes events such as this for people to open their eyes to that fact.

And of course, being on the list, nobody could fault you for wanting him to stay locked up. It appears to be his only alternative at this point.


Ron in Houston said...

System? In this guys opinion we don't really have a "system" for dealing with mental health issues.

Given the recent progress in understanding the brain and neurology it's way, way past time to start having discussions about the nexus of the criminal justice system and mental health.

Maybe you and Bennett can lead the charge. You guys have a sort of yin-yang thing going on.

Chris Attrell said...

You're a courageous person and am so pleased there are folks like you making the world a better place.

11:30pm said...

Murray wrote: "In the end, selfishly, I have to hope that he never sees the Light of Day."

From your mouth to God's ears.

Sustained! said...

I remember the first time I lost a client who had become a friend (unfortunately I have seen 4 to 5 clients die tragic deaths over the years). I was devastated because so much potential had been lost. It affected my entire practice. Just then another lawyer told me, "We are litigators, not litigants." That resonated with me. It reminded me that working in the criminal justice system can be taxing emotionally and that I needed to distance my self to protect my self. I still care and invest emotionally in my cases, but I remember that I am a litigator. Just saying.....

Eric J. Davis

Anonymous said...

Re: "(that the mentally ill truly cannot be held responsible for their own decisions because they are not rational), is the problem that the other poster tried to point out.."

How do you know that unless YOU were the one doing the writing?

Anonymous said...

How do you know that unless YOU were the one doing the writing?

Because his point was pretty clear.


Anonymous said...

I am very sorry for this family. Their grief must be complicated and confusing. It will be a long time before they probably can even sort out their feelings.

I am a mental health professional who has worked on cases like this for about 20 years.

The short "answer" is that each case is different.

In order to find out what "went wrong" an experienced person would have to spend a lot of time reviewing medical records, criminal records, interviewing family members and friends, and knowing how to compare all of that to research.

It is easy to say "the system failed" or "someone just should have (fill in the blank)."

The answer is always more complex.

Mental illness generally does not cause someone to use violence like this. It can be a contributing factor, of course. From my experience, it is a combination of things: mental illness, substance abuse, personality issues, life experiences, family dynamics, and so on.

It isn't fair to assume that someone who is dealing with a common mental health issue (like depression) is in danger of hurting those around him or her.

It also isn't right to say that because there is the presence of a mental illness, that a person IS NOT responsible for her or his choices and actions.

This is a complicated issue and those of us who work in the CJ system need to understand as much as we can about it.

NAMI is a good place to start - here is a link:

Anonymous said...

You're not be selfish hoping he never sees the light of day; you're being a responsible parent and rational human being. I can't imagine what it must feel like to be on someones hit list. Knowing that a shift of fate (maybe he got distracted by a barking dog or some other stupid trivial event that meant that he didn't get around to killing you or your son that day). I would find it hard not to think about that how close fate came to kicking you out of the game for good.

Derek Flynn said...

Been reading your posts on this. I feel for you and I am very sorry for your loss. Keep strong.

Anonymous said...


Having experienced a similar situation, I can only imagine what you have been through. My thoughts and prayers go out to you and your friend's family.

Mental illness is an awful thing to endure and even more awful for those of us on the "outside looking inward" who can see the deterioration of a loved one to the point of death. The system does suck (to put it bluntly)!

Hang in there and keep up the good work you do for others, but first and foremost... Take care of yourself and your son.

I really enjoy your blog and your thoughts on the state of our criminal justice system here in Harris County.

Stay Safe.

Matt Dexter

Anonymous said...

Let's go Newman, get back on the clock. Patty was in the nation news as reported over at Grits.
Get on this.......

A Harris County Lawyer said...

Working on it, Anon 5:42 p.m.