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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on October 4th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 31 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 31

Defense attorney for Jhordy Ramirez scrutinizes local mental health resources

By KASEY BUBNASH

After three court-appointed psychological evaluations, it was decided at a Santa Barbara Superior Court review on Sept. 28 that a jury trial will be held to decide whether Jhordy Ramirez, a Santa Maria man charged with attempted murder, is mentally competent for trial.

On May 18, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s office announced it would charge Ramirez, 22, with felony counts of attempted murder and causing great bodily injury after he allegedly stabbed his parents on the 300 block of Newlove Drive on May 12. Both parents, Silvia Diaz and Ricardo Ramirez, survived the alleged attack.

Jhordy was also charged with a misdemeanor count of resisting officers. The Sun previously reported that on May 12, police found Jhordy on-scene holding a knife, which led to a standoff. An officer eventually used a Taser to subdue him.

As details of Jhordy’s alleged past struggles with mental illness have come to the surface, so have accusations that Santa Barbara County is ill equipped to properly serve the needs of its residents’ mental health issues.

“This is a classic example of someone who reached out voluntarily with his parents to public institutions but they wouldn’t take him,” defense attorney David Bixby said after the review on Sept. 28, surrounded by more than 20 of Jhordy’s friends and family, including his parents, who showed up in court on his behalf.

“We’re trying to get him the help he needs,” Bixby said. 

Alleged inaccessible services 

As Bixby spoke after the court review on Sept. 28, Jhordy’s parents nodded.

Bixby said that before the incident, Jhordy was on the path to greatness. He had supportive friends and family—Bixby said Jhordy’s girlfriend and parents still stand behind him—made good grades in school, and was a talented boxer. In August 2010, Jhordy was the Sun’s athlete of the week. He had just claimed a national belt.

It wasn’t until Jhordy sustained an injury while boxing that his life began to deteriorate, Bixby said, although the attorney could not say what the injury was or whether it directly impacted his mental health. Bixby said Jhordy became suicidal and now shows symptoms of schizophrenia. That statement, however, could not be confirmed by court documents.


ATHLETE OF THE WEEK
A photo published by the Sun on Aug. 3, 2010, shows a 15-year-old Jhordy Ramirez “on his way to the top.” He had just won the Coachella East Coast championship and claimed a national belt.
FILE PHOTO

Bixby said Jhordy and his parents sought help voluntarily from local facilities—he didn’t know which facilities—but the family was turned away.

Suzanne Grimmesey, chief quality care and strategy officer for Santa Barbara County’s Department of Behavioral Wellness, said there is no reason a patient should be denied treatment.

While the county has a variety of resources for people suffering mental health issues, Grimmesey said, it has only one inpatient facility with 16 beds. On top of that, the Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF) is in Santa Barbara, making it less accessible to North County residents.

Inpatient facilities like the PHF are the only kind licensed to accept individuals involuntarily on a Service 5150, which allows officers and clinicians to confine a person suspected to have a dangerous mental health issue for 72 hours. But the county has several other services for voluntary patients, Grimmesey said, including a 12-bed crisis residential treatment center in Santa Maria, an eight-bed residential center in Santa Barbara, and one in the works in Lompoc.

The county, Grimmesey said, doesn’t have any inpatient facilities for children, and when the PHF’s beds are all taken, which Grimmesey said they often are, patients are sent to Vista del Mar Hospital in Ventura. 

Grimmesey said the county is working to provide more inpatient facilities.

“It’s clearly an active need,” she said. “Ideally we would have one in Santa Maria to be equally distributed. We are on the forefront of seeing something developed.”

When beds are available at the PHF, they cost $2,690 a day, although Grimmesey said that charge is offset by Medi-Cal in some situations, which can draw between 50 and 95 percent of the daily cost. A bed at Vista del Mar costs $910 a day.

Still, Grimmesey said treatment is always available. Behavioral Wellness has nearly 400 employees and contracts with 50 care providers. The county has mobile crisis teams that are sent out to evaluate adults and children who call for help anywhere in the county. A person calling for help is admitted into care immediately unless he refuses to go and is not found to be a threat to himself or others.

But before being admitted to an inpatient facility, Grimmesey said a person must be medically cleared. Doctors look for any relevant medical issues and drug use.

Grimmesey said the PHF accepts people on drugs, but if a person has a history of drug or alcohol abuse and is significantly intoxicated, detox becomes the chief issue. Some inpatient facilities are equipped with medical staff that can handle detox needs. The PHF, she said, is not.

When people aren’t medically cleared, Grimmesey said they are often sent to Cottage Hospital or to stay in the emergency room for medically assisted treatment. Then they’re re-evaluated for dangerous mental health issues and held in the PHF if needed.

Grimmesey said the county also has an Ethnic Services Program, which provides language translators and outreach to the various cultures prevalent in the county. Grimmesey said the program goes past language, and includes a cultural competency team that identifies specific  needs of various demographics.

There is always work to be done, Grimmesey said, and the lack of inpatient beds should be taken seriously.

“If we’re having to send people to Ventura, I would say we have too few,” Grimmesey said. “And that is a consistent pattern. 

Policing mental health 

The day before the alleged stabbing, defense attorney Bixby said Jhordy became increasingly suicidal. He called the Santa Maria Police Department for help, Bixby said. Officers responded, according to Bixby, but determined they could not hold him under Section 5150.

The Santa Maria Police Department did not respond to the Sun before press time to confirm this call was made.

The following day, May 12, Bixby said Jhordy stabbed himself with a knife. His parents tried to stop him, according to Bixby, and suffered severe injuries as a result. The attorney said Jhordy was incarcerated rather than treated.

Sgt. Terry Flaa of the Santa Maria Police Department said officers are trained at different levels to handle mental health crises. All officers attend a one-time crisis intervention training geared toward mental health and are required to fulfill a specific amount of tactical training each year, including a mental health component.

Some specialized officers, Flaa said, go through 40 hours of advanced crisis negotiation training.

Sgt. Mark Streker said mental health calls are always complex, and the training isn’t always enough. Officer safety is a priority, Streker said, especially when a weapon is involved. Officers are trained to start with “talking the person down.”

“We have to remember that they’re calling us for help,” Streker said. “Very infrequently will [mental health calls] end up in an arrest.”

However, Streker said it’s impossible to avoid an arrest if a serious crime is committed.

Since Jhordy’s arrest in May, Bixby said Jhordy has been sitting in Santa Barbara County Jail. The jail’s inability to effectively treat mentally ill inmates was documented in a Sun cover story (“The mind behind bars,” Jan. 10), which reported that more than 64 percent of inmates in local jails suffer mental health issues.

Bixby said Jhordy has been on psychotropic mental health injections, which last 30 days each and are used to counteract states of psychosis.

“I have a special desire to see Legislature do something to help these people rather than letting them rot in county jail,” Bixby said.

Jhordy’s criminal proceedings were suspended at a July 20 hearing, when Bixby said he suspected his client was mentally incompetent to stand trial.

“Judge,” Bixby started at the hearing, “[Jhordy] is not able to communicate with his counsel.”

Court documents show that Bixby and the District Attorney’s Office then chose two experts who filed psychological evaluations of Jhordy. At the court review on Sept. 28, three expert reports had been but were not publicly available.

At the Sept. 28 review, the District Attorney’s Office requested a trial jury to decide whether Jhordy is mentally competent.

Bixby said two experts found Jhordy to be incompetent, while another was “neutral,” although the Sun could not confirm that statement. Normally two agreeing experts would prove incompetence, Bixby said, but he said the District Attorney’s Office hopes to incarcerate Jhordy because he “dabbled” in methamphetamine use. But Bixby said it wasn’t much meth, and drug use can trigger already existing mental health issues.

Deputy District Attorney Lynmarc Jenkins, lead prosecutor on Jhordy’s case, said he couldn’t comment on pending details, adding that he wouldn’t want to sway jurors through media coverage.

Jhordy’s trial confirmation hearing is scheduled for Oct. 16.

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@santamariasun.com.




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