In a small office at the Arizona State Hospital, attorney Chick Arnold faces his client, Michael, a paranoid schizophrenic who has spent most of the past seven years at the hospital because he stabbed his grandfather to death. Michael has escaped from the hospital twice, but has come back of his own accord both times.

Arnold is conferring with Michael about his most recent escape-and-surrender episode. After Michael jumped a fence at the hospital, the daily newspapers and TV stations sounded the alarm: An insane murderer is loose! Bolt your doors! Lock your windows! Load your guns!

As it turned out, Michael simply wanted to go swimming in a lake. Once he had taken his dip, he came back to the hospital after two days on the lam, no worse for wear except for a highly contagious bacterial rash apparently contracted while he was undergoing his self-prescribed hydrotherapy.

Don't touch Michael, his doctor warns as he closes the door of a cluttered office, leaving Michael, Arnold and a reporter in silence.

Medicated, Michael, 34, has the demeanor of a sweet 8-year-old, not a man who brutally stabbed his grandfather and tried to kill his grandmother. He wears a worn green shirt, blue jeans and sneakers. He perches on the edge of a chair, focusing wide blue eyes as Arnold asks a few gentle questions. Why, Arnold asks, did you leave the hospital? Michael smiles, scratching his infected arms absently. He only wanted to go for a swim, Michael explains. He likes it here. He would never try to run away for good.

At the end of the conversation, Michael rises, grinning, and extends his hand. He's forgotten the doctor's warning, perhaps never understood it. Awkward seconds pass as Arnold considers the price of spurning his client's fragile affection. Finally, Arnold reaches out and grasps Michael's hand tightly. As Michael leaves, Arnold examines his palm, wincing. Then he smiles and rolls his eyes.

The gesture is a fitting metaphor for Chick Arnold's life. He readily embraces the untouchables, Arizona's great unwashed. They are his livelihood.

@body:Chick Arnold's private law practice is unique in Arizona, perhaps in the United States. He represents the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled and the elderly. Arnold, 46, is a soft-spoken man whose New York roots show up more in his theatrical shrugs and sighs than in his dialect. He looks like actor Steve Martin, but shorter. Like an actor, he shifts easily from role to role: lawyer, advocate, mediator, therapist, friend. One of his clients calls him Zorro. Another insists he's an act of God.

He's also the Arnold in Arnold v. Sarn, a celebrated lawsuit that was supposed to have forced Maricopa County to provide services to its mentally ill.

Most mental-health advocates come by their interest through a firsthand experience with a mentally ill family member. Not so in Arnold's case. He was inspired by Arizona's abysmal mental-health system.

After graduating from the University of Arizona College of Law and practicing general interest law for a few years, Arnold was appointed public fiduciary of Maricopa County in 1980. The public fiduciary is the guardian of county residents unable to care for themselves, including seriously mentally ill indigents.

Nationwide, services for the mentally ill were grossly inadequate, following the wholesale deinstitutionalization of mental patients in the 70s. Here in Arizona, the situation was dire. In 1981, this state ranked dead last in the nation for mental-health services.

And so as the public guardian, the young lawyer served as the plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest against the state Department of Health Services (James Sarn, the department's director, was the named defendant), the Arizona State Hospital and Arnold's bosses, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.

The Board of Supervisors fired Arnold from his public fiduciary post. He fought for reinstatement and won, only to leave weeks later to establish his own private practice, specializing in mental-health law.

Meanwhile, the defendants appealed the case all the way up to the Arizona Supreme Court, which ruled in 1989 in Arnold's favor, saying that the state must follow its own statutes and provide services to mentally ill indigents in Maricopa County, regardless of cost. A detailed implementation plan designed to offer a continuum of services was coordinated by a court-appointed monitor and nicknamed "the blueprint." Arnold serves as lawyer to the court monitor.

The system has only just begun to respond to the needs of the estimated 12,000 seriously mentally ill residents of the county. The state is no longer at the bottom of the heap. A 1990 survey ranked Arizona's mental-health system 38th in the nation (tied with six other states for places 38 through 44). That's far from laudatory in a nation where even the best states have problems, says Fuller Torrey, who conducts the surveys in conjunction with national mental- and public-health advocacy groups. "Even if you're Number 10, you're among the bright kids in the dumb class," Torrey says. Arnold says it is still a system designed to keep people out rather than let them in. So he applies his legal skills and knowledge of Arizona's mental-health statutes (ironically, the laws on the books in 1981 were--and still are--among the best in the country) to force a response on a case-by-case basis. He charges $175 an hour. Only about half the hours he works are actually billed because many of his clients are penniless. But Arnold points out that he does "just fine"; today his law office employs eight people--including two other attorneys.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets