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Texas' failure to fund mental health treatment leaves hundreds stranded in jails around the state

Photo: Illustration by Chuck Kerr, License: N/A

Illustration by Chuck Kerr

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Jeremy Weaver

In the meantime, Adan Castaneda, 25, a Marine Corps veteran from San Antonio who bounced from one psychiatric crisis to the next upon his return from the Iraq War (see "Walking Wounded," November 30, 2011), landed in the Comal County jail last May when, during a psychotic episode, he fired over 20 bullets into his mother's house. In November, he was deemed incompetent to stand trial for two counts of attempted murder and two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, among other charges. By that time he had already spent months in jail, most of it in solitary. His mother insists he wasted away without the necessary treatment. "He's lost 60 pounds in six months. … He's so fragile every time I see him," mother Maria Anna Esparza said last month. "To spend Christmas in jail when you've already been there for over seven months, it's just incredibly sad for someone who gave up his mind, his life for his country."

Esparza spent months tracking down organizations and advocates hoping to find help for her son, finding instead only dead ends. However, late last month she found Austin-based defense attorney Keith Hampton, who helped her file legal paperwork with Castaneda's Comal County judge days before Christmas, pushing to force DSHS to make room for her son.

To hear Hampton explain it, he's itching for a confrontation with state health officials.

The attorney started working with Travis County Court-at-Law Judge Nancy Hohengarten, the judge overseeing that county's mental health docket, this past summer. Frustrated that defendants ordered into state hospital treatment faced wait times of months, and worried that the system was denying mentally ill defendants their constitutional rights to due process and fair treatment, Hampton began filing legal action asking for immediate commitments to the local state hospital. The reaction was swift. Roughly 15 mentally ill defendants under Hampton were placed within days or even hours.

If DSHS ever refuses to place a client within a "reasonable amount of time" — Hampton considers that to be five days, max — then he's ready to push for a contempt hearing, something he insists could force state officials to explain why they haven't complied with a judicial order. And really, Hampton already knows the answer: the Legislature simply hasn't appropriated enough funds. "DSHS is not enforcing judicial orders. They're not funded to. They can't, and that's where the problem lies," he said.

Hampton's taking his fight statewide, petitioning judges to put time limits in their orders for state hospital treatment and making his legal briefs available to anyone who wants them. Since the summer, he's given his briefs out to roughly 50 judges and defense attorneys across the state. He squarely blames state lawmakers for skimping on mental health care, and takes a deliberately provocative tone. "I want the state to know there's this asshole lawyer out there and he's after us," he said. "I want to shake them up and let them know this is not just a flash in the pan." And he doesn't expect his game of chicken with DSHS to last indefinitely. "At some point, somebody's going to have to be refused placement (at a state hospital), and that's when you're going to see the contempt hearing and the final endgame to this," he said. "Essentially, we've been accommodating this crisis with the use of our local jails, which are not built to warehouse people who need treatment for long periods of time."

Days before Texas rang in the New Year, Hampton and Esparza got word from jail and state health officials that Castaneda, after 8 months in incarceration, had been transferred to a North Texas state hospital for treatment. As Hampton sees it, that's one down, another 250 to go. •

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