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Colorado family hopes jailed loved one who struggles with mental health and homelessness can get spot in state facility

Family hopes jailed loved one can get spot in state mental health facility
Family hopes jailed loved one can get spot in state mental health facility 07:31

In Colorado's jail and prisons a population of mentally ill people has been a constant for decades. Sheriff's Offices and prisons have dealt with serving the population at high cost to taxpayers as people who have a variety of issues and needs burden a system not designed for them. It is a system with large gaps the state has made moves to close, but which remain wide.

"She won't survive out on the streets anymore," said Kendra Anderson as she related her 23-year-old daughter's journey from home, to streets, to jail. Her daughter Olivia Schack has been in the Jefferson County Jail since December, awaiting transfer to a state mental hospital. It could take up to a year or more.


Olivia's family has been constantly worried about her since she began to show signs of mental deterioration in her teenage years. Ultimately she was diagnosed as bipolar, with schizoaffective disorder and severe depression and anxiety. As she reached adulthood, things got more and more difficult.

"When she stayed with me, I had meds, knives, everything locked up in my room, said her mother. "You could hear her. It was like there was an exorcism in my basement."

Her family, including sisters, are understanding of the effect of mental illness on her. As she reached adulthood, the behavior got more erratic. She began to self-medicate with drugs. She would disappear at times for days.

"She loves us, she stays with us, but then the drugs and stuff helps so she disappears, she leaves. She'll take off and then she'll come back and she'll bring strange people back to our house," said Kendra Anderson.

Staying with her biological father at one point he told her it could not continue.

"Her dad finally was like, "You can't be doing this, you've got to stay home, you have to do this and she flipped out and attacked him, like viciously attacked him," said Anderson. She tore the house apart. It was clear to family she could no longer stay.

It began a cycle of homelessness and arrests in one community after another. She spent a lot of time on the 16th Street Mall as well as living in a tent in Arvada. She was arrested in multiple jurisdictions. As an adult, the family no longer had rights to information.

"Denver kept her for a month, deemed her incompetent, dropped all charges and let her walk out the door in Denver," said Anderson. "Just let her walk out the door. 22 years old. Didn't contact us. Nobody knew."

They worried about her and feared her being assaulted. For long stretches they did not know where she was. They were able to get her into a treatment center for a time, but it was expensive and she was too hard to handle. They tried to get her on disability payments from Social Security.

"That's been an absolute nightmare. And the people through the disability have been somewhat helpful but like there's nothing we do because, she's an adult," said her mother.

They thought about the process involuntary committal, but it found it baffling and nearly impossible.

So they began a process of being in touch, then out of touch, checking jails to see where she ended up. Her mother volunteered at Mission Arvada day shelter, hoping to see her.

"The last time I've seen her, physically hugged her and touched her was last October of 2021," said Kendra.


Karen Cowling, director at Mission Arvada, is well aware of the number of people who are experiencing homelessness who have mental health problems.

"Probably more than half of my clients have some sort of mental health issue," said Cowling. But getting them committed against their own wishes is extremely difficult.

"I mean it's like attorneys and letters and advocates and you know, it's next to impossible." 

She notes that among another population in need of help, it is there.

"Fortunately most of our elderly with Alzheimer's wind up in a facility and there's nurses there and they're taking care of them. But we have a lot of young people that are walking the streets with severe mental illness that need that kind of caretaking."

Like much of the nation, Colorado closed large institutional facilities starting in the 1960s where people were housed in what was discovered were often poorly operated and maintained and oppressive facilities. There was to be a system of community based programs to care for the mentally ill. But then, there wasn't. Only a fraction of the intended facilities were ever created and people ended up de-institutionalized, without a place to go. Except the streets.

"It's putting the cart before the horse to rush to say we want to commit this person to civil care because where is the care that you're committing them to?" posed Vincent Atchity, President and CEO of Mental Health Colorado.

Part of the idea of commitment is a bad visual.

"I think that people go directly to this notion that involuntary care is always going to mean pinning you down on the ground and sticking a needle in your arm and forcing you to have your medication while you're thrashing all of your limbs in resistance and that's certainly the way it's depicted in the movies," said Atchity.

But community based services, including what are becoming known as wrap-around services are showing effectiveness.

"We need to fully get over and erase that notion of permanent and ultra-restrictive commitment. Commitment can be a variety of different things," said Atchity. Worries about imposition on people's civil liberties remain. If what somebody needs in that instance when they're putting cuffs on them is health care, it's not just a waste of resources, it's a human tragedy," said Atchity.

Colorado has taken steps to implement more programs, but meantime hundreds of people typically wait in jails for mental evaluations and potential placement. It is the pathway for many.

"She's been dealing with Jefferson County Mental Health since she was 17 and they told us that we needed to start pressing charges to get her in the system. Which is what we did," said Kendra Anderson about her daughter's situation.

In Colorado, it's estimated that incarceration costs $45,000 per year per inmate. The cost of mental health services in communities in the nation that have created more appropriate care, says Atchity, are doing it for about two-fifths the cost.

"It breaks your heart and especially when they come back. You know two weeks later for the same crime or a violation on a protection order," said Polly Abernathy, Detention Services manager for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.

The pathway is similar for many. 

"They'll get raised for competency. From there a state evaluator will do an evaluation on them. If they are deemed competent to proceed they can move on with our court process. If they are deemed incompetent to proceed then they are given a tier status so they are determined if they are to go to the state hospital in Pueblo or Fort Logan, said Abernathy. They can also channel some people to programs at Arapahoe and Boulder County. But there's still a large gap.

"There are pieces of it that are lacking," Abernathy added.

Kendra Anderson has been pleased with the help Jefferson County has given Olivia, but having her in the criminal justice system is still not the right place. A judge has finally ordered her to be sent to a state mental health facility, but there are no spaces available.

"Should she be in that cell? I mean she's essentially by herself all the time which is terrible for people with mental health," said Kendra Anderson about Olivia's situation.

While Olivia has been declared incompetent to stand trial, she remains in jail without conviction, awaiting room in a state mental health facility. She has been incarcerated since December. The wait for space could be a year or more.

RELATED: Short of staff and beds, mentally ill remain in Colorado's jails and on our streets

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