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Elkhart man hopes state will look at mental health laws, make it easier to get loved ones help before it's too late

The Truth - 9/17/2017

Sept. 17--ELKHART -- Lucas Owensby Hoffer starting seeing snakes everywhere about six months before his husband had him arrested.

Craig Owensby Hoffer said it was the best thing he could do for Lucas, since the 29-year-old refused to seek treatment for the paranoid schizophrenia that caused him to wake up in the middle of the night slapping a bed he thought was covered in snakes. It also had him convinced his parole officer from a 2016 case over running from the law could monitor him through the TV so he didn't need to check in anymore, leading to a warrant being issued for his arrest.

Previous police visits to their home didn't have much effect because Lucas could act normal while they were there, Craig said. So he and Lucas's father agreed that contacting police about the warrant and having him arrested might be their best chance to help him.

"It really should never have come to that point," Craig said. "It probably could have been addressed five or six months ago if the laws were different. We're fortunate he violated his probation, that gave us the opportunity to get him some help. His father and I tried to talk to him, but he's bullheaded."

Lucas was still seeing snakes as police wrestled him into handcuffs outside his home Aug. 15.

"I thanked the police (but) I knew it was gonna be ugly," Craig said. "They did save his life."

'It comes on hard'

Craig and Lucas got married a year and a half ago and have known each other about twice as long. Craig said Lucas developed his issues in the past six months, but thinks it may only be the visible part of something that's always been just below the surface ever since an experience of childhood trauma.

"They say around age 30 it comes on hard," Craig said. "But I think he probably had it his whole life, from talking with his father."

Lucas's mental issues didn't make him an immediate threat but his husband feared it was only a matter of time before he hurt himself or someone else. Craig said Lucas thought he was protecting him by killing the snakes he saw, but he wondered what would happen if Lucas ever imagined he was a snake himself.

Amber Pasztor, the 30-year-old Fort Wayne woman recently sentenced to 130 years in prison for killing her two young children, also said she thought she was protecting them. A sufferer of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, she told authorities she was saving her children from a fate worse than death at the hands of a cartel she imagined was after them, when she smothered them in the back seat of a car.

Pasztor had been in and out of treatment much of her life, including a two-week hospital stay she checked herself in for after becoming delusional a few weeks before the August 2016 murders. Her attorney said at her sentencing that combining drug use with her mental issues created someone capable of what she did, and that he was glad she would finally receive treatment while in prison.

Craig said Lucas refused to recognize his condition, afraid that getting treatment meant being locked away in a padded room. And short of a dangerous emergency, the law was on Lucas's side.

Without power of attorney or power to make medical decisions, someone in his situation couldn't force a family member with mental health problems to do anything, according to Amy Rosen, director of access to services for Oaklawn. A judge may intervene if the person represents a danger to himself or others or is gravely impaired, and order a 72-hour hold, but that can also require action from a doctor and acceptance into a psychiatric facility.

"It can be extremely frustrating for loved ones, if they don't have legal standing," Rosen said. "They want to be supportive, but if the individual is not willing to consent, their hands are tied."

Craig said he wants to know what the state could look at to make it easier to get people help before it gets too serious. He said he knows the laws won't get looked at unless he and others whose loved ones experience mental health crises speak out about it.

"Unless they're suicidal in front of an officer or a threat to someone, they're protected. The public needs to know how hard it is to get someone help," he said. "The state seems to wash its hands of it. People hear the word 'mental illness' and they kind of go hush-hush. It's a shame our state is that way."

'A double-edged sword'

It wasn't too many years ago that the law allowed a husband to check his wife into an asylum for days, weeks or months on his word alone, Rosen said. The laws were changed to give more weight to a mental health professional's determination of whether someone needed to go to a treatment facility or not.

But she said the pendulum may have swung too far the other way, with the evolution of privacy laws like HIPAA "in ways that legislative bodies had not foreseen. It became a double-edged sword." Clearing up those laws, which are interpreted differently in different places, is one way she said the system could be improved.

Other changes over the years lead to the decentralization of treatment opportunities, with state hospitals closing and community mental health centers like Oaklawn opening. Cracks in coverage began to appear as inpatient beds became fewer, requiring a sort of rationing based on need, and funding for the community centers continued to fall short.

One thing that came to fill those cracks is hospital emergency rooms, which Rosen said may not be well-equipped for people with mental health issues. Another is law enforcement.

"It's a struggle, there's a big gap for us. We don't have enough psychiatrists in the state to meet our need," she said. "The community system was not built to the point to sustain it. People end up in jail for mental health issues."

Craig said the police who arrested Lucas "did the best they possibly could in his situation." The officer who made the arrest describes in his report an encounter that left Lucas bleeding from his knees, hand and legs after being wrestled to the ground and bitten by a police dog, which, according to Craig, he thought was another snake.

Police don't always know ahead of time if they're going into a situation with a person who suffers from mental illness, said Elkhart Police spokesman Sgt. Chris Snyder. They may need to rely on help from the person's family or friends in addition to their own training.

"Every situation law enforcement deals with is different. Unfortunately we have to deal with the situation and can only utilize the facts we know at that specific time," he said. "We utilize every resource that is available. In situations dealing with individuals who suffer from a mental illness we could certainly utilize assistance from family, friends and trained professionals. However, we must consider the safety of the subject we are there to assist, family, friends, and professionals as well as law enforcement."

All of Craig's contact with his husband since his arrest has been over the phone or through a TV screen in the county jail, where he was able to get him moved from the general population into medical care. Craig praised the jail staff for their quick reaction once he explained Lucas's situation.

Capt. John Perry, the jail commander, said training their officers to deal with people with mental health issues starts in orientation.

"We use de-escalation techniques to work with people prior to having to use force or coercion to control their behavior," Perry said. "We have three fulltime mental health workers and a part-time psychiatrist on staff. We have 24-hour nursing care and the nursing staff have mental health training as well. Our mental health staff are on call 24 hours a day."

He added that training is scheduled in October for the Crisis Intervention Team program, a 40-hour course developed to teach law enforcement, first responders and others in criminal justice about various types of mental illness and how to respond safely and effectively. Rosen said it's the first time the weeklong course has been offered in Elkhart County in quite a while.

Rather than jail, she said police also have the option of placing a 24-hour hold on someone experiencing a mental health crisis, which allows them to take the person to a hospital where he can be evaluated. But she said police hesitate to use the option since it requires an officer to stay with the person, which could tie them up for hours.

'That can't be me'

Craig said Lucas called him from prison one day after his arrest to ask what schizophrenia was.

"He must have thought, 'I'm young, I'm healthy, I'm not stupid. That can't be me,'" Craig said. "He's got a condition, and he's got some loved ones who want to give him the best opportunity in life. He's probably not the only case where someone says, 'I don't think I need help, I can do this on my own.'"

One of the most important things a family member can do for someone with mental health issues is to be supportive long before a crisis develops, Rosen said. She described a wide foundation of potential support, including therapists or pastors, and suggested the family develop collateral bonds with the person's treatment providers.

"It's always better when they can start to work with them in an outpatient setting, than to wait till a crisis has errupted and then we're chasing our tail," she said. "The more proactive a family can be, the better."

Craig hopes to get Lucas's charges dismissed, which include disarming a police officer, battery on an officer and striking a police dog. He's glad the police report mentions the snakes, which shows what Lucas thought was happening, and he said he held on to a note Lucas wrote himself as if it was from the probation department, telling him he was free and to "have a stress-free life."

"I may have to use that in the court system," Craig said. "We're at the mercy of the court."

Lucas still has up or down moments but is more stabilized now, and he's taking his medication. He even signed a medical release form so Craig can find him a longterm treatment program.

"I told him once, you have a choice: You either go to prison or you get treatment. He hung up and said, 'I don't need help,'" Craig said. "After three or four hours, he called back and said, 'Hi. OK.' Maybe getting arrested was finally an eye-opener."


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