Friday, September 30, 2011

Mental patients are more often prey then predator.

                The popular media version of the mental patient is the crazed killer who is a danger to the community. In my experience, it is more likely that people with serious psychiatric illness are preyed upon by bad people. Living in poverty in unsafe housing and marginal neighborhoods, the few belongings they have are always at risk. Many times, when people are hospitalized, their belongings are lost and stolen and when they are released they have to start from scratch. The risk of physical harm is also great. Those with psychiatric illness are not viewed as reliable reporters of crime. They can be victimized not only by the people who prey upon them, but by law enforcement and a criminal justice system that has difficulty understanding their needs.

The Story

Gil was the sort of guy that when you met him, you couldn’t help smiling. This happened as a reflection of his smile, almost a permanent fixture on his face. It was genuine and welcoming and slightly amused as if he had a private joke he was about to share with only you. The tobacco stains on his teeth and mustache didn’t deter you from smiling back. Nor did his torn jeans and flannel shirt. Part of the joy that Gil relished was his secret knowledge that he was of royal blood. This idea had come to him when he was a second year student at Cornell. Having spent a good part of the year as a history major studying European history, he’d realized that the reach of the Hapsburgs went far and wide. They had many offspring and branches that entered every royal house in Europe. During winter break, visiting his parents in Delaware, he’d quizzed them extensively on their lineage. His father’s father had come from Germany as a child in the late 1890’s. A family story was told about his great grandfather working in the Kaiser’s kitchen. In the following spring semester Gil proclaimed during a seminar that he was of royal blood, most likely a prince. The professor ignored him until he became very insistent and disruptive. Gil’s roommate could only ignore him until a chair on a platform, decorated in red velvet, appeared in room they shared. Gil sat upon it dressed in a gold bathrobe with a crown made from wire coat hangers. The other students on the floor were more frightened than amused and when campus security came, Gil meekly agreed to go to the hospital. Gil’s dad, who had an uncle and several cousins with schizophrenia, wasn’t surprised by the call, just saddened that his only son had joined what he’d viewed as a family curse.
At the time, in the middle 1970’s, claims of royal blood combined with upsetting behavior could land you in the state hospital. Gil was a model patient, cooperating with all treatments, helping other patients and participating in groups and vocational programs. Unfortunately, he never gained “insight” into his illness and it took him several years to understand that there are some things that you just need to keep to yourself.
When Gil got out of the hospital, he found living in Ithaca more pleasing than his parent’s home in rural Delaware and stayed on. During his decades here, he thought of himself as an “alternative” sort of guy and Ithaca suited him fine. Much of the time he spent here was on our downtown pedestrian mall or “commons” as we call it. Summer or winter, he’d hang out with friends, sometimes playing his guitar or joining in a chess match. His apartment was nearby and well maintained, primarily through his caseworker, Helen.
Helen was very upset when she came into my office on a Monday morning. She plopped down in a chair and said, “The McCabe brothers have moved in on Gil.” Unfortunately, I knew exactly what that meant. The McCabe brothers were a real problem. Their primary occupation was to prey on the elderly and the disabled. The local cops had trouble deciding who was a bigger troublemaker, Danny or Davey. Danny was an alcoholic and substance abuser who would drink, smoke, snort or shoot anything he could get his hands on. He was a liar and a thief and worst of all, he was a bully. He always found someone weak and frightened to threaten and intimidate. At age 42, he was a little less than six feet tall with thin blond hair, cracked, broken and missing teeth, and a pitted lined face. His arms and legs were filled with bad ink from jail. He had a mean streak that could lead him to hitting and hurting anyone who didn’t give him what he wanted.
Davey was a runt. At a little over five feet tall, he was prone to wearing cowboy boots with lifts in them, except when he was working and then he wore Converse All Star sneakers. His work was stealing, and he maintained a specialty. He stole women’s purses off the backs of chairs and floors in bars and restaurants. He was good at it. I once went into a college bar at about 11:00pm and at least a dozen women were lined up to give statements to the uniformed cop. The purses were discovered the next day floating in a creek two blocks away. Money, credit cards and all other valuables had been removed.
Bar owners and bouncers knew Davey and what he did. But he somehow managed to get past them and ply his craft. Occasionally, he was caught, but the charges never gave him more than a month in the county lockup.
When I got to the apartment, Gil answered the door. “It’s not a good time.” He half whispered. “I need to talk to you,” I replied as I entered the room. Davey was lying on the couch smoking a cigarette. Danny was asleep in Gil’s bed. A pillow and blanket were on the floor where Gil had spent the night. I banged on the bedroom door. “Danny! Danny! Hey! Rise and shine. I have to talk to you.“ I heard him curse under his breath as he pulled on his jeans and got out of bed. “What’s the problem?” “Look Danny, you know the deal. Gil has an agreement with us and the landlord that he won’t have overnight guests. If you guys crash here, he’s going to get evicted.” “He asked us to stay,” Davey said from behind me. “Yeah, I know. Gil is a really good guy. He’s always ready to help somebody out,” I said.
Fifteen minutes later the McCabe’s were gone. “Terry, I’m sorry that I got Helen so upset. I was out on the street last night and those guys didn’t have a place to stay and we got a twelve pack and I told them they could crash here.” He was smiling that winning smile. “You know those guys,” I said. “They act like your friends, but they just use people. Did you give them money?“ “Just twenty bucks. But Danny said it was a loan, he’d pay me back.” “How long have they really been here?” I asked. “About a week,” he replied.
I received a call from Helen just before the work day ended. Gil had shown up at her office in tears. He reported that a watch his grandfather had given him and a coin collection (that was hidden in his closet) were gone.
The next day I was joined by a police officer and we found the McCabes hanging out in front of the Department of Social Services. “Look guys, there’s some stuff missing from Gil’s apartment. We’re not saying you took it but you may know where it is. It might be best if it was returned,” I said. Davey replied, “Hey, there were a lot of people in and out of that place. Anybody could have taken that stuff.” “It would be really good if Gil got his grandfather’s watch back,” I strongly suggested.
The next day Helen called to tell me Gil had found his watch. “He said he misplaced it,” she said.
Over the next several months Helen called multiple times to tell me about the McCabes and Gil. She took over managing Gil’s finances and transferred the lease from his name to his elderly parents. She got their power of attorney, in an attempt to control the apartment. She and I tracked down the McCabes one Friday afternoon and Helen gave them a written notice stating that they were not allowed in Gil’s apartment under any circumstances. The next Monday Gil showed up at Helen’s office with stomach pains. When Helen pursued the cause of his distress he lifted his shirt to show multiple bruises all around his mid-section. She called me, and an officer and I met with Gil to get his story. The McCabes had shown up late Friday night and gave Gil a beating. They stayed at his apartment all week-end, having a party that got so big that the police had been called with a noise complaint.
Gil went to the police station and wrote out a statement to file charges against the McCabes. We met with an Assistant District Attorney and reviewed the charges. Trespassing was an easy one because of the documentation, including the police report from the noise complaint. Aggravated harassment was as high as they could be charged for the beating. “It’s a ‘his word against theirs’ kind of thing,” the ADA advised us. Beat cops brought the McCabes in later that day and they were both taken to the county jail, neither having bail money.
Helen called me to her office later that week. “Gil’s staying at the shelter in Rochester and they’re going to get him an apartment up there. He says that the McCabes will kill him when they get out.”
A year later, Danny’s body was found in an abandoned house.  He'd died of natural causes but nobody missed him for a week. Last month I saw Davey in a bar I frequent. When he saw me staring at him he made a quick exit. I never saw Gil again.
The Stories
The stories are my remembrances. Each of them is based on a true event in my work for Tompkins County Mental Health. I have changed the names and identifying information of every client, patient and co-worker except for Beau Saul, of the Ithaca Police Department, who I was fortunate enough to have as a partner. When confidentiality demanded it, I have changed details. The dialogue is my reconstruction of what was said at the time.   I have felt honored to be let into the lives of so many individuals over the years. Their stories are a gift I have been given.  Please enjoy them in the spirit with which they were written; to educate and inform.

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