By Owen McNamee and Douglas Brawley
Special to BrowardBulldog.org
Editor’s Note: Owen McNamee heads the mental health division of the Broward Public Defender’s Office. Douglas Brawley is an assistant Broward public defender and attorney for the Forgotten Soldier.
Twenty years ago eighteen members of a Broward Grand Jury issued a scathing report that concluded the county’s mental health system was under-financed, fragmented and leaderless. They found the system was failing thousands of mentally ill and disabled persons and causing hundreds to wind up in jail or endure forced hospitalizations without needed treatment.
Twenty years later, we are still failing this vulnerable population.
Meet the Forgotten Soldier. He is a proud former Marine in his late fifties who has been consistently misdiagnosed and has languished illegally for years in facilities without appropriate care.
The Forgotten Soldier’s name cannot be used because his court-appointed guardian will not allow it. Privacy laws enacted to protect us are instead being used to protect a broken mental health system.
For 3 1/2 years after his arrest for nothing more than being unable to care for himself, the Forgotten Solider was confined in locked psychiatric facilities in South Florida. He has had multiple head traumas and suffers from dementia, a diagnosis that is becoming more common every day.
On the day of his arrest in January 2011 the Forgotten Soldier was homeless, had lacerations across his head and face, and was wearing a hospital ID bracelet.
THE ALLEGED CRIME
According to the arrest report, the Forgotten Soldier walked up to a house and stood at the front door while dogs barked violently inside the home. The Forgotten Soldier pushed open the door about one foot and the homeowner pulled it shut. He then walked to the side of the house and down the street. He was arrested a short time later by Fort Lauderdale Police.
Police, noticing the hospital bracelet, took him to the hospital for medical clearance. They were told the Forgotten Soldier had been a patient the day before, the victim of head trauma sustained while homeless on the streets of Fort Lauderdale. The booking photo shows the Forgotten Soldier’s bloodied head and face.
The Broward State Attorney’s Office charged the Forgotten Soldier with Burglary of an Occupied Dwelling, an offense punishable by 15 years in prison. His apparent dementia was ignored, as was his apparent victimization while living on the streets. Prosecutors saw a criminal and nothing more.
After several months in jail without treatment, a judge found the Forgotten Solider incompetent to proceed. In April of 2011, he was committed to the custody of Department of Children and Family and hospitalized.
DCF placed him at several in-state psychiatric facilities, including the South Florida State Hospital in Pembroke Pines, a privatized facility operated under contract by a subsidiary of Boca Raton prison company, The GEO Group. This is not a regular hospital. This is a locked down hospital for people with mental illness. The Forgotten Solider was committed with murderers and rapists with mental health issues, even though he wasn’t mentally ill and even though his “crime” was minimal at best.
The Forgotten Soldier spent the next 2 ½ years there before the forensic hospital correctly diagnosed his condition after finally deciding to run brain scans- something that should have been done at the time of his initial evaluation.
Doctors watched as his MRI and CAT scans lit up like a Christmas tree — indicating his dementia was caused not by a mental illness but by head trauma. They realized the Forgotten Soldier’s dementia was untreatable, and shipped back to the Broward County Jail in April 2014.
THE MENTAL HEALTH RUNAROUND
Broward Felony Mental Health Court Judge Mark Speiser ordered the Forgotten Soldier be sent to the nearest Baker Act receiving facility. He did so even thought the Baker Act, the state law that allows for involuntary mental health evaluations, requires a mental illness.
Doctors at the receiving facility again found the Forgotten Soldier did not have a mental illness. He was then returned to jail.
Judge Speiser, however, was neither willing to accept the doctors’ findings or to order DCF to do its job and provide care for the Forgotten Soldier. Instead, the judge ordered him sent to a different Baker Act receiving facility for another evaluation.
The result was the same. The Forgotten Solder did not meet the criteria for a Baker Act. He was again returned to jail.
After being ping-ponged between the jail and receiving facilities for three months, the Broward Public Defender’s Office finally convinced the mental health court to order Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, DCF’s area contractor, to find community placement and treatment for the Forgotten Soldier.
On July 10, 2014 Sylvia Quintana, Director of Broward Behavioral Health Coalition informed the court that DCF would not provide services as ordered by the Court. The reason: the Forgotten Soldier was not mentally ill.
Instead of holding Broward Behavioral in contempt of court for violating his order and failing to provide placement for the Forgotten Soldier, Judge Speiser capitulated and let DCF’s managing entity off the hook. He later issued a written ruling stating that he believed it was a waste of the court’s time to hold a contempt hearing.
Instead, Speiser sent the Forgotten Soldier to yet another receiving facility, Fort Lauderdale Hospital, for a Baker Act evaluation. This time the court ordered that the Forgotten Soldier was not to be released until further order of the court.
Understanding that it was “stuck” with the patient, Fort Lauderdale Hospital swore out a Baker Act petition claiming the Forgotten Soldier was mentally ill and needed to be placed in South Florida State hospital.
Fort Lauderdale Hospital withdrew its Baker Act petition after an independent expert concluded once again that the Forgotten Soldier suffers from dementia and does not meet criteria under the Baker Act. The expert found the Forgotten Soldier is unable to care for himself due to his dementia and needs nursing care in a long-term residential facility.
While at Fort Lauderdale hospital the Forgotten Soldier was taken to Broward General Hospital after he suffered a life threatening seizure. He was discharged two days later and sent back to Fort Lauderdale Hospital, which refused to admit him, contrary to the court’s order.
The Forgotten Soldier was instead returned to jail dressed in only a diaper and a hospital gown.
On July 25, Judge Speiser ordered DCF to open an Adult Protection Services investigation of the Forgotten Soldier and report its findings within twenty-four hours. After several days, DCF reported back that even though the Forgotten Soldier is not able to take care of himself in the community without help, he was not a “vulnerable adult.”
The determination by DCF meant that DCF did not have to provide any services to the Forgotten Solider.
This month, at last, the Forgotten Soldier finally was placed at an area nursing home. His guardian accomplished it with some assistance of the Veteran’s Administration.