"Danger to Children"

Why did Kelly Blake douse her kids with gas and set them on fire? She's seriously mentally ill -- and she was deserted by the system charged with protecting her and her family.

"Kelly is completely at the mercy of others," one of her attorneys wrote in a recent court pleading.

Veteran prosecutor Noel Levy likely will adopt a different take on that theme when Blake is tried for murder and other charges: that Blake's kids were at her mercy when she'd torched them with gas purchased with money she'd borrowed from Johnny.

In September, a Superior Court judge ruled Blake legally competent to stand trial. If convicted, she'll face life in prison, though it remains to be seen if state corrections officials will be able to accommodate her medical needs.

An entry from Kelly Blake's diary.
An entry from Kelly Blake's diary.
Phoenix Fire Captain Autry Cheatham: "Some things just aren't going to make sense."
Paolo Vescia
Phoenix Fire Captain Autry Cheatham: "Some things just aren't going to make sense."

A guilty-except-insane verdict is a possibility, which would put Blake at the Arizona State Hospital (provided that institution could handle her medical needs), perhaps for the rest of her life. Defense attorneys surely will ask jurors to consider her mental state at the time of the crimes.

Civil attorneys already are sparring over that very topic. On March 18, 1999, Phoenix attorney Art Gorman filed a civil lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court on behalf of Blake and her surviving son, John Fausto Jr.

It alleges that several mental-health agencies and their employees "failed to properly diagnose Blake's condition, failed to properly medicate and treat her, failed to hospitalize her, and failed to warn that she was a danger to herself and her children."

The defendants include Southwest Behavioral Health Services and ComCare, a quasi-government agency responsible in Maricopa County at the time for contracting with clinics such as Southwest Behavioral.

Their attorneys have responded, saying that Blake "did not exhibit signs that she was a danger to herself, or to others, including her children, and therefore, [Southwest Behavioral] did not warn that [Blake] was a danger to herself and her children ..."

Blake's medical records suggest otherwise. They depict a woman gripped by a diagnosed serious mental illness who got little help in battling it.

Contrary to Southwest Behavioral's claims, its own records show that a nurse made a chilling notation after Blake came to its urgent care clinic on February 23, 1998, one month before killing her kids:

Melanie Henraty wrote: "Danger to children."

During that visit, Blake herself wrote on her admission form, "I am having severe insomnia with thoughts of su." But rather than complete the word that began "su" -- it surely would have been "suicide" -- she crossed it out.

Other paperwork shows that clinic personnel learned while Blake was there that she'd been deemed seriously mentally ill in 1991. Reports from that year included an entry from a county hospital nurse that echoed Henraty's own haunting assessment:

"Client related to Maricopa Medical Center staff thoughts of hurting her children."

No one can say for sure if prompt, proper treatment would have stopped Blake from acting on her sickest impulses. But the evidence against the county's mental-health system is damning.

Being classified as seriously mentally ill in Arizona is supposed to mandate comprehensive treatment services.

That didn't happen in Kelly Blake's case.

Instead, those in charge of her mental welfare -- especially the psychiatrist assigned to treat her -- disregarded or ignored the systemic safeguards designed to protect the Blakes of the world from hurting themselves and others.

That February 23, Dr. Bill Sbilris -- who worked at Southwest Behavioral's urgent care clinic (a kind of psychiatric emergency room) -- conducted a cursory interview with Blake. Then he wrote her a prescription for a sleep-inducing drug, and sent her on her way.

Sbilris noted that Blake had told him she wasn't homicidal or suicidal, and had no psychiatric history. But records accessed by clinic workers minutes earlier -- Sbilris apparently didn't peruse them -- showed Blake was dramatically understating her mental history.

She returned to the clinic eight days later, March 3, claiming the sleeping pills weren't working. Sbilris again saw Blake for a few minutes, changed her prescription, jotted some notes about her "vague" psychiatric history -- it was anything but vague -- and turned her loose.

Neither Sbilris, nor anyone else at Southwest Behavioral, warned those closest to Blake -- Josephine Fausto or family members -- that the addled mother posed a danger to her kids. Their failure to do so is a crucial component of Blake's civil lawsuit. (See accompanying story.)

The next day, she went to St. Luke's Medical Center emergency room to complain about her insomnia. "Patient [is] weak and [has] low level of function -- thinks [she] may need to have thyroid checked. Trouble sleeping."

Again, doctors sent Blake home within a few hours with yet another prescription for stress-related sleeplessness.

Sixteen days later, she bought a can of gas.

Kelly Blake shows what she calls "my house" to a visitor. It's a tidy room at a central Phoenix long-term-care facility that she shares with an ailing elderly woman.

Blake's part of the room is cheerfully appointed. The first things she sees when she awakens are family photos tacked to the wall.

She has a collection of stuffed bears -- presents from friends and family -- and a framed still-life painting that she completed months ago: She paints with pastels by wedging the brush between the knotted stubs that once were hands, then slowly works the canvas.

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