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A letter from the heart

Dear Jay,

It will be your birthday again in a couple of days, Christmas Boy.

I think about you all the time, my beloved nephew. The image of your face-splitting grin and the sound of your booming laughter still abide in my heart. The wisdom you shared in our final conversation still reverberates in my soul.

Of course, neither of us knew that would be the last time we'd speak. That you'd be killed in the back alley of a seedy Medford neighborhood on Sept. 11, 2005, stabbed to death by a man suffering from schizophrenia.

I know you'd want everyone to understand you don't hate your killer. That your own lifelong battles with mental illness and addictions gave you compassion for the plight of your brothers. Even though your own life was often a living hell.

You'd once again slipped into that deadly spiral. We, your family and friends, were doing all we could to pull you out. But illness, and drug and alcohol abuse already had destroyed too much of the brilliant mind you'd once used to earn a law degree.

It's been seven years since your death. I wrote five years ago about how you might have been saved with long-term, inpatient mental health care. But that help simply wasn't available at that time.

I am sorry to say, it still isn't. In fact, things have gotten worse. Jackson County's two client-run, drop-in day centers for the mentally ill, DASIL and Hawthorne House, closed this fall. And there are just a dozen beds in the only psychiatric unit in this valley.

As you know, the ward operates as a revolving door triage for those experiencing the most critical mental health crisis. There are simply too many in line for those precious beds.

I think of you often when I'm covering the courts beat. I watch how those working in the justice system struggle with the fact that we criminalize people for their afflictions. And I wonder if you're smiling down when we don't.

On Tuesday, two middle-aged women pleaded their case from the gallery on behalf of a young woman suffering from bipolar disorder. Please don't ruin her chance at a future by sentencing her to a felony, begged the first woman. The second woman choked back tears as she looked longingly at the lost young woman, perched on a chair in orange prison garb, gazing silently into the courtroom via the county jail video feed.

Her daughter had qualified for the program because she had never been in trouble before or since that one incident, the second woman said.

Both vowed to help her meet the diversion program requirements — if they could only have a little more time.

"It's the bipolar, your honor," the first woman said, desperately trying to explain a fractured life in a single sentence.

I expected the judge to bring the hammer down on this girl's dreams of becoming a nurse. I thought he'd say she'd had her one chance at mercy, and that she'd blown it.

Instead, he picked up a copy of the Oregon Revised Statutes and held high the massive tome.

"According to this I'm supposed to sentence her," he said. "But you know what's wrong with this thing? It doesn't account for human beings."

The judge gave her six more months to meet her obligations. The women left the courtroom. The mother was still crying.

I hope her daughter makes it. But you and I both know that a family's love and good intentions don't cure serious mental health problems. And that what comfort it does bring is not available for many.

On Wednesday, I covered the case of a homeless man who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. He was found "guilty except for insanity" in a plea agreement, and was sentenced on the Measure 11 arson charge to a maximum of 20 years in the state mental hospital for setting fire to a trash can that burned Ashland businesses, causing $250,000 in damage.

His public defender addressed the court while gently soothing his trembling client. With a steadying hand on the man's back, the attorney explained how someone had stolen his client's medications from his backpack. The voices in his tortured head had returned. Screaming, taunting, chasing and scaring the big man, the attorney said.

This "criminal" begged the judge to give him "one more chance." He pleaded not to be sent to the state mental hospital, even as he apologized for his actions, and said he understood the prosecutor was only doing his job. "I didn't do this on purpose," he said.

The judge assured the defendant he was a good person. But he was a danger to others and to himself. The hospital would provide the care he needed to get well, the judge said.

The gentleman had looked over at me several times during the proceedings. No doubt he was wondering why a strange woman was staring at him, scribbling in her notebook. I offered a small, reassuring smile. I didn't know what else to do. He tentatively smiled back. Then asked whether I was the lady who was going to take him to the hospital.

As the deputies stepped forward to return him to his cell, the man hugged his attorney, sobbing his thanks.

"I will miss you, Michael," he said.

The sadness in that courtroom was palpable. The seasoned defense attorney told the sympathetic judge it was one of the hardest cases he'd ever handled.

The prosecutor also expressed frustration. He understands his primary job is to protect the community. And that he got this man some help. But this "criminal" won't be at the state hospital for 20 years. And he'll be back to square one once he's released. Homeless and lost.

Speaking as a friend, Adam said he'd once believed all lawbreakers deserved what was coming to them. Then he married a mental health care professional. Now he gets it, he said.

Cycling the mentally ill through the criminal justice system doesn't make them well or us safer, he said. Not in the long-term. Not by a long shot.

We agreed we need to de-stigmatize mental illness and provide ongoing and effective care for those afflicted. Just like we do for cancer, diabetes and any other sickness — at whatever level is necessary to save lives. Theirs, and ours.

We can talk about guns. We can talk about good versus evil. We can talk till we're blue in the face. But from Jackson County courtrooms to Portland malls to Connecticut elementary schools, it is obvious to me that our failure to address this nation's broken, battered and unfunded mental health care system is what's truly insane.

I'd better sign off now, Jay. I pray that wherever you are, you're happy and well.

Love always, Sanne

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or sspecht@mailtribune.com.