Is Harris County Jail the Place for A Mentally Troubled Teen?

Laura Howard got tossed into a jail treatment program, but it was the wrong one for someone whose mental health was in tatters

It was made up of representatives from the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County, HPD, the sheriff's department and several other ­organizations.

"That group studied models all over the country for what could be done at the point that a person with mental illness comes into contact with an officer," says MHA Director Betsy Schwartz.

The task force chose a crisis intervention system, which had been made popular in the Memphis police department in the 1980s. A pilot program started in the Houston police department in 1999, coinciding with the opening of the NeuroPsychiatric Center, with 60 officers given eight hours of training, designed in part by Schwartz's organization.

Howard's mother, Allie Ellington (left), noticed her daughter cut herself when Howard was 14.
Courtesy Laura Howard
Howard's mother, Allie Ellington (left), noticed her daughter cut herself when Howard was 14.
Ellington was desperate to get her daughter out of jail.
Daniel Kramer
Ellington was desperate to get her daughter out of jail.

During the years that followed, the city increased its crisis intervention training funding for the police department, and the program grew. Every cadet is now required to take 40 hours of CIT before graduating from the academy.

"We tried to get the sheriff's department to have the same amount of training, but it was very difficult," Schwartz says.

In 2003, state legislators passed a bill that requires all law enforcement officers to complete at least 16 hours of the training by September of 2009. According to Lieutenant John Legg, a sheriff's spokesman, about 70 percent of the deputies have satisfied that requirement.

"Department-wide, it changes the mind-set of our officers, even our non-CIT officers," says Lieutenant Mike Lee, the unit supervisor for HPD's crisis intervention program. "They are going to know that this is what is expected of them as a police ­officer" (see "Is Harris County Jail the Place for a Mentally Troubled Teen?: Mind-sets").

In May of this year, Houston police officers were dispatched to a house where a Hispanic teenager had threatened his parents and was smashing furniture and punching holes in the walls. The father told the dispatcher that his son had recently been diagnosed with mental ­illness.

When officers approached the boy, he threw wild punches and fought them. According to a report, the officers became tired from the "extreme physical strength being demonstrated by the suspect in his psychotic state."

He was shot in his chest with a taser, and as he was getting shocked, the teenager told officers "you are the devil" before ripping out the taser darts.

A group of Houston police eventually restrained the boy, but instead of jail, they took him to the NeuroPsychiatric Center for a mental health evaluation, and the police didn't file any charges.

"The families love us and they'll say, 'I'm afraid to call anyone else because if I do, my brother or my sister might wind up dead,'" HPD Senior Officer Michael Chimney says.

Six months before she tried to kill herself in her bedroom, Howard had moved back in with her mother from an apartment she shared with her boyfriend and his ­buddies.

Single mother Ellington works at a dentist's office not far from her home, and sometimes she works a second or third job to pay Howard's medical bills and, more recently, her legal fines. Child support from Howard's father used to help, but Ellington quit relying on him years ago because, she says, he's an alcoholic who can't keep a job.

Howard feels guilty when she complains or causes problems, she says, because her mother works so hard, but a tension remains in their relationship. Ellington has a hard time identifying the source, but according to Howard, the problems started when her mother forced her to have an abortion when she was 14.

"Once that happened, I wasn't right because I wanted to have the baby," Howard says. "I didn't care how old I was. Fourteen is outrageously young, and I still don't know a lot of things about life, but it was my fault I got pregnant. Why couldn't I take responsibility for what I did? My mom didn't feel like that was a great way to go."

Howard cut herself for the first time in the ninth grade. Ellington asked her about it, but Howard said she didn't remember what happened, so her mother figured it was a bad reaction to a medication. But fresh cuts appeared.

A psychiatrist saw Howard and diagnosed her as bipolar and obsessive compulsive. In the following months, doctors constantly adjusted and fine-tuned Howard's meds; if the dosage was low Howard was erratic, and if she was overmedicated — often the case, according to Ellington — she would sleep all day. Either way, she'd feel sick.

(Tenth grade was the last school year Howard completed. She missed too many days her junior year and didn't take the TAKS, so she couldn't enroll in an alternative school. She later received her GED.)

At high school and parties, however, her classmates gave her weed and Xanax, drugs that were fun to take and made her feel better than the psych drugs prescribed by her doctor. (to watch Howard talk about her drug use, click here)

"When you have a mental illness, your body is craving medication," Houston attorney and former MHMRA counselor Phil Jenkins says. "There are two ways to get medication. You can go down to the MHMRA clinic, wait six weeks on the waiting list, be herded through like cattle, then get these medications with all these bad side effects, or, there's a man on the corner who sells something that makes you feel better."

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