AIDS and Abetting

Danielle Adair is a mentally ill, AIDS-carrying prostitute. But officials release her to the streets over and over and over again.

It's not as if officials have just ignored the life-and-death issues swirling around Adair. The public record holds statements from doctors who repeatedly have warned of the health threat she presents. Last November, for example, Dr. Potts wrote to a Tempe city judge that "[Adair] continues to remain a public health hazard . . . and she certainly needs a guardian."

She has repeated the cycle to which Potts refers for years. In short, Adair commits crimes -- some potentially life-threatening -- gets jailed, is shipped to the county hospital for a short stint, then is freed to the community. "Community" translates in her case to drug abuse and prostitution.

"She's seen by society as the lowest of the low," says Christy Dye, chief of the Substance Abuse Treatment and Prevention Services unit at the state Department of Behavioral Health Services. "She's a woman with AIDS who is a substance abuser and a hooker. She's constantly subjected to violence and bad things, and then the system can't find a place for her. That's not right."

Sergeant Leroy Betz of the Tempe Police Department: "Our role was to keep arresting her for criminal violations."
Paolo Vescia
Sergeant Leroy Betz of the Tempe Police Department: "Our role was to keep arresting her for criminal violations."
Danielle Adair has been held at a county psychiatric ward for weeks.
Paolo Vescia
Danielle Adair has been held at a county psychiatric ward for weeks.

Danielle Adair first came to the attention of Maricopa County's mental-health system in 1994. Coincidentally, that was the year criminal justice and mental-health professionals asked the Arizona Legislature to amend the laws about incompetence to stand trial.

The thinking was sound: Under the system in place then (and now, for that matter), authorities allowed mentally incompetent people, especially the mentally retarded, to commit crime after crime without being punished or placed under proper supervision.

The legislators passed a law designed to rein in some incompetent defendants, in part by "providing secure treatment alternatives, subject to legislative appropriation, for [those] who . . . are a threat to public safety and who are not in an otherwise safe and secure environment."

Then-governor Fife Symington signed the bill. But the law's key phrase turned out to be "subject to legislative appropriation." Seven years later, the Legislature still hasn't allotted a penny to build the "secure facility." Just a few weeks ago, in fact, the lawmakers put funding for the proposed facility on hold until at least 2003.

However, it's not as if the lack of funding left mental-health authorities with nowhere to turn when trying to care for the Danielle Adairs of Maricopa County. For example, Arizona State Hospital (ASH) has been a "secure facility" for decades. Its chief executive officer, Jack Silver, said recently that about 30 beds out of 335 are open at ASH for mental patients.

But the vagaries of present-day mental-health politics and economics mean that few new patients of Adair's ilk are sent to ASH. Instead, most chronically ill people whom the courts deem civilly commitable end up in jail, then are freed to commit new crimes against other people and property. And hospital officials at ASH's county counterpart -- the Maricopa Medical Center (MMC) -- indicate the average length of stay at the psychiatric ward there is only about two weeks.

So why have there seemingly been no institutional or programmatic options for Danielle Adair, who desperately needs one? Those inside the mental-health system don't have an adequate answer.

"The more I look into this case, the more I shake my head," says Vicki Staples, BHS bureau chief for Persons With a Serious Mental Illness. "So many systems should have been involved, and it's unclear why they haven't been. So many should-haves. . . . I don't think there are any knights in shining armor in this story."

Danielle Adair's first admission to the county psychiatric ward came in July 1994, after she allegedly attempted suicide by overdosing on aspirin. It happened shortly after her 2-year-old son died because of a respiratory illness. She was released 11 days later, after telling officials her life story.

Though details of her autobiography have changed over the years, Adair's life by any measure has been grim.

"I was always in the stupid classes," she tells New Times, referring to special-education classes she took while growing up in Mesa. "People always said that I'm stupid, but I'm not that stupid. I learned how to make it out there, and nobody helped me with nothing."

Though those words sound bitter, Adair actually is very congenial. She jokes with a guard about letting her have a smoke, then joshes with a visitor about chocolate bars he must have in his briefcase. When Adair is on medication, as she was during the New Times interview, she's fairly coherent, and is well-groomed. On the surface, she doesn't yet appear ravaged by AIDS, or her other serious maladies.

Depending on the account, Adair was born either in California or Arizona, the youngest of three sisters. She claims her family disowned her years ago, and says she's had no recent contact with them or her estranged husband. New Times was unable to locate any of her family members.

School officials placed Adair in special-education classes as a youngster after her IQ score tested out at 64. That's considered mildly mentally retarded.

She says she dropped out of school after 10th grade, around the time she started using crack cocaine. Adair says she loves the jolting high, because it instantly makes her forget how ugly and stupid she thinks she is. She says she's never held a job for long, and turned to prostitution in her early 20s to make a few dollars.

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