Longform

A System Gone Mad

Page 7 of 9

"The prevailing theory is that supervisory-care homes are in place only because there aren't good community-based services available," attorney Chick Arnold explains. "Discouraging placement in supervisory-care homes, the theory goes, is going to provide an incentive to the system to develop the kind of individual living services that are needed. Theoretically."

In truth, Donald was in limbo, caught between the lofty aims of Arnold v. Sarn and real life.

By last May, records show, ComCare inexplicably had dropped him as a client, despite his permanent status as a gravely disabled patient.

But a May 10 fax from ComCare to the Maricopa County Jail confirms its action: "Case closed, but can be reopened if he wants it."

ComCare reopened its file on Donald, though it's unlikely he knew what he wanted.

Jail records paint a disturbing portrait of a pathetic figure.
May 10: "Reeks of BM [feces] . . . Noted to be hoarding BM in Styrofoam cups."

May 28: "Screaming--threatening and out of control."
June 2: "Became loud, hostile, threatening, banging on doors. 'I want my Bible, my food and my bag of shit.'"

On July 3, authorities transferred Donald to the county psych annex at Maricopa Medical Center. It marked his 12th admission to the facility in less than a decade.

These days, the county hospital serves as a treatment "provider" to ComCare, the same as the private Samaritan hospitals and other area facilities. In effect, ComCare purchases a service from such providers, and ultimately decides who's admitted and who isn't.

But doctors retain the right to disagree with the ComCare clinical team's evaluation. This right--and responsibility, and how doctors in Donald's case failed to utilize it--loomed large in what was about to happen.

A few days after he arrived at the county hospital, Donald tried to fill out a questionnaire. "Why were you admitted to this hospital?" it asked.

"Paranoid schizophrenia, Donald Ellison, my illness," he scrawled.
Two of Donald's sisters from California visited him at the hospital over the July 4 weekend.

"It was really sad," says Alice Jackson. "He was very sick and he was slipping away from us. He said, 'You think you're so smart, but you don't know nothing on my life.'"

On July 9, Donald met at the psych annex with a ComCare case manager, who made notations after the meeting: "Discussed with [Donald] where he needed to go after discharge, and that it would be a place where staff can monitor his meds, and [Donald] agreed with this."

Toward the end of his three weeks at county, Donald did show slight signs of "stabilizing": He wasn't hoarding feces anymore, and he wasn't drooling as profusely.

But his sister Mary Howard wasn't convinced. She expressed her feelings during a July 17 meeting with his AVSC guardian/conservator Gary Warner, a ComCare case manager and county hospital personnel.

"I said Donald didn't seem to be snapping back like he had before," Howard says. "He seemed just sicker than ever to me."

No one, she adds, broached the possibility of moving Donald into his own apartment.

"We discussed the option of him going into New Life, a residential abuse program," a ComCare case manager wrote after the meeting, confirming Howard's recollections. "If he is not accepted in the program, he can come back to the hospital."

Mary Howard spoke with her brother for the last time shortly before she left for a family reunion in Texas.

"He told me, 'Buy me a ticket, sister,'" she says. "I told him it was too late. He said he was getting out real soon. I said I'd see him soon."

Howard wouldn't know how badly Donald's interview at New Life had gone until after he died and she got access to AVSC records.

"Took Donald to New Life for an interview for possible placement," AVSC social worker Gary Warner wrote in a case note dated July 19. "Shelly from ComCare helped transport, was at the interview. Donald did poorly at the interview. Facility stated they would take him only if he was stabilized further through longer hospitalization.

"Returned Donald to MMC Psych Annex. Shelly asked if ComCare could put Donald in an apartment, near one of their programs, so the program could monitor and administer Donald's medication. I agreed to this."

Actually, the reference to Donald's doing "poorly" is an understatement. Sources tell New Times he defecated on himself at New Life and acted, predictably, like a profoundly disturbed man.

"They had told me, 'We'll put him in residential treatment for a month and see what happens,'" Mary Howard recalls. "So he got rejected by the home. Being out there all alone was Plan B?"

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin