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MailTribune.com
  • A Silent Population

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  • Lost in the wilderness of the system, missing Medford woman's plight speaks for the mentally ill
    A day before disappearing into the woods, Rachel Rice had her four front teeth pulled.
    I think I did something stupid, the 46-year-old woman told her daughter, Lindsey Rice.
    A diagnosed schizophrenic, Rachel Rice told her daughter she walked into a Medford dentist's office with no appointment and no money because of the voices in her apartment.
    I said, 'It's not your apartment; you need to be in a mental institution,' Lindsey Rice, 25, recalled.
    It was the last thing Rice said to her mother, who hung up the phone and went missing the next day in rural Central Point.
    — A lifelong valley resident, Rachel Rice frequently ran away from foster care homes and family members during her 20-year battle with mental illness. But as nearly six months have passed with no word, Lindsey Rice is convinced her mother probably is gone for good. Still, she hopes that someone can provide information on her final destination.
    Not having a body, not having a funeral is the hard part, Lindsey Rice said. And that this did not have to happen.
    Immediately before her Aug. 2 disappearance, Rachel Rice was attempting to live on her own for the first time in almost 10 years. After Rice was denied a place in the local foster care system, her daughter moved her to a Medford apartment near Jackson County's mental health offices and a grocery store. Rice was expected to manage her own medication ' more than a dozen prescriptions in four or five daily doses, her daughter said.
    I didn't think it would work from the beginning, Lindsey Rice said.
    But Rachel Rice and her family had run out of options. None of the county's foster homes would agree to take Rice in.
    Her tendency toward running away and reluctance to take medication were blamed, Lindsey Rice said.
    When you're mentally ill, you don't really want to follow the rules, Rice said. You have your own rules.
    Foster homes, which are run independently and receive referrals from local mental health workers, have the discretion to refuse residents, said Becky Martin, mental health director for the county. She said she was unable to discuss Rachel Rice's specific case.
    Lindsey Rice wanted her mother court-committed last year and placed in the Oregon State Hospital in Salem or another secure facility to undergo long-term treatment. Rachel Rice had been placed in the state hospital at least once in the past, Lindsey Rice said. This time, she was told, We can't just commit somebody for being odd.
    The legal threshold for mental illness is much higher than the clinical definition. The person must suffer from a mental disorder but also must be a danger to himself or others. If the court cannot establish such a danger, the person must be chronically ill and twice civilly committed to a state hospital in the past three years while exhibiting similar symptoms that, unless treated, will become dangerous.
    The county stresses that civil commitment is not an ultimate solution. The legal process and the mental health system cannot guarantee a level of care or degree of supervision that a person may require, according to a written guide on civil commitment produced by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
    Even if Rachel Rice could have been committed, there was simply no room in the state hospital, her caseworker told the family.
    The county sends only three or four patients on average each month to the state hospital, Martin said. The county's active caseload of mental health clients is approximately 2,000. Some of those sent to the state hospital have never had previous contact with the local mental health system, she said. The courts also help fill the hospital with criminal defendants awaiting trial, she added.
    The system is overcrowded, and it's difficult to get into, Martin said.
    Mental health workers first do everything possible to treat patients locally, Martin said. Some patients, however, need higher security and longer periods of treatment that simply can't be provided outside a hospital setting, Martin said.
    We don't want to send people to the state hospital, she said.
    The decision to admit a patient to the state hospital system is not made locally, she said. Even if someone is committed, he usually must wait for several weeks at Rogue Valley Medical Center's psychiatric unit before a bed is available in Salem or Portland, Martin said.
    In the case of Rachel Rice, her mental health worker told her family to basically, put her on the streets, Lindsey Rice said.
    The streets already were familiar territory to Rachel Rice. Leaving her residence, she would walk as far as Rogue River from Medford, usually without shoes, money or identification. Believing pursuers could track her through personal belongings, Rice threw away her purse, jewelry and glasses.
    She hitchhiked once as far as Elko, Nev. She slept under bridges and told her daughter she narrowly escaped being raped by homeless men. She fell into a river and got hypothermia.
    Yet never more than four days passed before Lindsey Rice received a phone call from her mother. When her mother was back on her medication, they would even laugh about the crazy things she would do when off on one of her walks, Lindsey Rice said.
    But the reality of life on the streets confronted Rice about a month after her mother's disappearance. Rice recognized her childhood doctor Gary Safley in a September newspaper article about the murder of his son Jay, who also was mentally ill.
    Seeing that made me realize ... how bad things are and that this sort of thing could happen to her, too, Rice said.
    Another mentally ill man is accused of stabbing Jay Safley to death in a downtown Medford alley on Sept. 11. Like Rachel Rice, Safley frequently ran away from his parents' Central Point home and had difficulty staying on his medication.
    Two days before his death, the 45-year-old had been released from RVMC's psychiatric unit. His family was not notified per Safley's wishes, a fatal flaw in the mental health system, said his mother, Judy Safley.
    What does it say about us when the most vulnerable of our population are put more at risk than they already are? Safley asked.
    Lindsey Rice said she also is frustrated by medical professionals' citation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA. Countless times, her mother was released from the hospital without any family member being notified, she said.
    Both families acknowledge the limitations of and lack of funding for local mental health care. Yet they believe more can and must be done.
    This is basically a silent population, Judy Safley said.
    People cannot become invisible just because it's difficult to deal with them.
    But that's exactly what happened to Rachel Rice, her daughter said.
    For five months, Rice struggled to live on her own among the rest of society. Numerous times, she called 9-1-1 hysterical, her daughter said. Medical records show Rachel Rice sought treatment at local emergency rooms half a dozen times in the space of one month. After trying to pull out her own teeth, she persuaded a dentist to do it for her.
    Still biting on a towel, Rachel Rice made her way to a friend's childhood home off Central Point's Old Military Road. Carrie Haskett said she knew Rice ' muddy and wearing socks only on her feet ' had gone off her medication.
    I just can't believe she was running around in that kind of condition, Haskett said.
    Haskett said she gave Rice shoes, a straw hat, a clean shirt, a bottle of water and some chocolate. Her high-school friend refused a ride to her father's home several miles away on Snowy Butte Lane. Haskett called Rice's father, Art Decker, but got no answer. Minutes later, she drove the route Rice should have taken, but her friend had melted into the landscape.
    Sheriff's deputies searched the area but turned up no sign of Rice, who could have even hitchhiked to another state, her daughter said. Mental health workers have never contacted the family for an update, she said.
    She's gone from their system and not talked about, Lindsey Rice said.
    She just disappeared.
    Rachel Louise Rice
    Age:
    46
    Birthdate:
    June 11, 1959
    Date missing:
    Aug. 2, 2005
    Missing from:
    Central Point
    Height:
    5 feet 5 inches
    Weight:
    165 pounds
    Hair:
    brown, curly
    Eye color:
    blue
    Complexion:
    light
    Clothing:
    pink shirt, white pants, no shoes
    Identifying characteristics:
    missing upper four front teeth, caps on four lower teeth, birthmark in middle of chest, scar on thumb, pierced ears
    Circumstances of disappearance:
    Last seen at approximately 10 a.m. Aug. 2 in the vicinity of Old Military and Old Stage roads
    Investigative agency:
    Jackson County Sheriff's Department
    Phone:
    774-6800
    Case No.:
    05-16743
    A Silent Population"slemon@mailtribune.com.

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