“I was screaming for help for my son. Do we need another Borderline shooting? I’m trying to protect you all from being abused by my loved one. Why don’t you care?”
by Kimberly Rivers
“My son has always had some anger issues. He was diagnosed with ADHD as a young child. As he got older the rageful behavior got bigger and bigger,” said Vanessa Woodling (not her real name), a resident of Simi Valley, speaking with the VCReporter on July 2, 2020. She was talking about her 25-year-old son, Jason (not his real name). Over the past six years, his behavior has escalated and he has been hospitalized nine times since 2018 and still is not receiving consistent treatment.
“In May 2018 a friend of his passed away… he became paranoid thinking his friend was murdered…thinking the house was bugged. He started saying people were following him. He wouldn’t talk to me in the house anymore. In August he had his first mental breakdown. He was basically manic, running, screaming around the house. He believed the president was talking to him through the television.”
First hospitalization: Aug. 31, 2018
On August 31, 2018, Jason was hospitalized at Adventist Health Simi Valley pursuant to a 5150 hold. 5150 is the state code number for a law that allows a person to be held for up to 72 hours if they are a danger to themselves or others or suffer from a “grave disability.” That hold can be extended up to 14 days or longer based on certain requirements.
Jason arrived at the emergency department in Simi Valley suffering from “paranoia, disordered thinking and auditory and visual hallucinations,” according to admittance records. He was transferred to Northridge Hospital in Los Angeles County because there were no available inpatient beds for psychiatric care in Ventura County.
Doctor notes from Northridge state Jason had no awareness of his illness and “his delusions caused him to break a car window.”
He was discharged four days later. He received no treatment and Woodling was not provided with any follow-up instructions or support to help stabilize him or help him in his illness.
“We know the importance of treating at the first psychotic break,” said Mary Haffner, secretary on the Ventura County Behavioral Health (VCBH) Advisory Board and co-chair of the Ventura County ASSIST Implementation Workgroup, an outpatient program of VCBH.
Science points to changes that occur within the brain during each episode, making treatment more challenging. A 2008 study printed in World Psychiatry, the official journal of the World Psychiatric Association, states, “Withholding treatment until severe and less reversible symptomatic and functional impairment have become entrenched represents a failure of care.” (1)
“We need to grab him now, get him on the right treatment. The longer we leave him in the cycle of homelessness and arrest…we leave him in the dust that way,” said Haffner.
An escalating cycle
“Two weeks later, he had another psychotic break,” said Woodling. Jason was hospitalized in September 2018, this time at Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena, again pursuant to a 5150. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
“They were pressuring me to take him home. I can’t live like this.” She was afraid for her life because now Jason was carrying knives everywhere he went, even sleeping with them under his pillow. “I felt trapped…he was not safe to be around.”
He was discharged after seven days, again with no follow up and no resources. Jason’s issues took a turn for the worse in March 2019.
“He was arrested for battering someone at work,” Woodling said, explaining that Jason beat up a colleague while displaying delusional and psychotic behavior. On April 4, a restraining order was issued against Jason. “He’s been disabled since 2019. He can’t work because of his behavior.” Woodling is concerned for her son and for others he may injure without proper treatment.
On May 6, Jason was again transported out of the county on a 5150 to Del Amo Behavioral Health in Torrance, diagnosed with schizophrenia, prescribed the antipsychotic Abilify and discharged after 11 days. This was followed by hospitalizations on May 22 (Long Beach) and May 30 (Woodland Hills).
“Every single time I felt like they were guilting me,” Woodling said. Hospital staff would tell her, “If he doesn’t have support then he’d be on the street. There is nowhere to get therapy.” She said staying in a hospital for a week to ten days doesn’t do any good. “They see a psychiatrist for five minutes. No real therapy. No treatment…it’s very frustrating.”
“He’s not fine”
“He was arrested again in August 2019 for disturbing the peace. They dropped the charges. I was sitting there talking to the officers and telling them what is going on, they would say ‘he seems fine.’ But he’s not fine.”
Woodling spoke at a public meeting of the Ventura County Behavioral Health Advisory board in September 2019.
“At that meeting I stood up and shared three minutes of my story. I was very blunt. I was screaming for help for my son. Do we need another Borderline shooting? I’m trying to protect you all from being abused by my loved one. Why don’t you care?”
After that, the county placed him in the Laura’s Law program, called ASSIST, an outpatient treatment program for seriously mentally ill adults. Woodling credits the staff of ASSIST for being a bright spot in her experience, calling Jason’s case worker a “lifeline,” but the program’s limited parameters couldn’t get Jason the treatment he really needs.
Woodling felt unsafe, saying that Jason was “shutting himself off from the world. He was so paranoid. He’d lock himself in his room and do drugs all day. Eat, do drugs. He couldn’t do his own laundry. He was living in squalor.” She said he was once again hospitalized due to the living conditions in his bedroom. She moved out of the apartment they shared for her own safety.
“My son is a very big man, I couldn’t get him to leave the house. I had to give notice and move in with family members. My son is now homeless and living in his car. It’s horrible. Now you have a delusional, paranoid person, driving out on the street.”
“What gets lost is that the people who are supporting these people — the families, partners, brothers and sisters — this literally throws their entire world upside down,” explains VCBH’s Haffner. “Their loved one is not acting like themselves. They live in a completely different reality. They can’t reason, they are foreign to you. You don’t recognize them. That is a death for you. It’s debilitating and frightening.”
The long road to conservatorship
On Nov. 27, Jason was again hospitalized for violent behavior and sent out of the county, this time to Aurora Charter Oak Behavioral Health Care in Covina. Again doctors prescribed Abilify for schizophrenia. Shortly after being discharged, he caused a car accident that landed him at Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks for surgery on an injured leg. According to Woodling, “Within a week he’s screaming.”
“His behavior was so unacceptable. They weren’t doing anything. … They just don’t want to deal with it.”
Around this time a coworker told Woodling about the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “For the first time I heard about a conservatorship for my son. I was not told about this by anyone at a hospital. I could finally get help for my son. You don’t know where to go, you don’t know what you don’t know.”
A conservatorship is a legal relationship between the county and the patient. The county appoints a guardian who is responsible for care and treatment of the patient.
Since 2018, Woodling had managed Jason’s hospitalizations and advocated for his treatment while working full time. She tried time and again to impress upon hospital staff the seriousness of his condition. The possibility of a conservatorship brought Woodling some hope that Jason might finally get the level of care he so desperately needs. But getting the county to authorize a conservatorship would turn out to be a labyrinthian process.
The first step was to send a letter to the hospital asking for a conservatorship, requesting that her son be kept in Ventura County and transferred to Hillmont Inpatient Psychiatric Unit, one of two county-operated inpatient facilities.
“They didn’t even respond and I was told by the charge nurse, ‘We don’t do that.’”
In January 2020, after surgery and with stitches in his leg, Jason was again transferred to Aurora in Covina on a 5150 due to exhibiting violent behavior at Los Robles Hospital.
But Woodling had not given up on the conservatorship. “A NAMI representative sat with me and basically guided me through the rules of applying for a conservatorship for Jason.”
First, a detailed letter had to be submitted to the psychiatrist overseeing his case within three days of the 5150.
“You have to provide a full-blown history of the person’s hospitalization record,” Woodling explained, “from most current to oldest in chronological order, that includes the diagnosis, how long there, name of the hospital, address. How would anybody know how to do that? Nobody would. It’s only because of NAMI and Mary [Haffner] that I got any guidance at all.”
Negligence, misinformation and another arrest
Finally the conservatorship application was accepted and a final hearing was scheduled.
Jason was transferred to Hillmont on Jan. 22 with his leg requiring care and monitoring. Woodling made sure the wound care instructions from Los Robles Hospital were sent to the staff at Hillmont (she has emails confirming receipt).
A week before the hearing, Woodling received a call from Jason about his leg. She rushed to Hillmont to find the wound “black and oozing, looks like a beetle…There was a bloody towel stuffed in there.”
Staff denied receiving wound care instructions, and the medical chart shows that a doctor had seen Jason earlier that same day. When the doctor returned at her insistence, he agreed it was a serious infection and required medical care. “He had already seen him that day and he didn’t do anything.”
Jason was transferred to Ventura County Medical Center (VCMC) with a staph infection. The knee had to be “opened up again, flushed.”
The final conservatorship hearing was scheduled to take place while Jason was at VCMC. “I would have wheeled him over there,” said Woodling, but she was told by the Public Guardian’s office that the hearing was discontinued because Jason was in the hospital. She came to learn that information was wrong: The hearing had in fact taken place and because Jason didn’t appear, the conservatorship was denied.
“The conservatorship was dropped. I literally lost it.”
Jason is put on another 5150. “That starts the clock again, now going through temporary conservatorship again. That’s another 30 days sitting in the crappy hospital, with no treatment.”
According to Woodling, staff at Hillmot put Jason on the wrong medication, affecting his mood and behavior, and isolated him in a room by himself — with negative consequences. “He freaked out, assaulted staff, punched that person. They pressed charges and he was arrested. Now he is in jail. In a cell by himself.”
Oddly, Woodling says he got “better treatment in jail than at Hillmont…The deputies there are amazing.” He was taking his medications for the first time while at Ventura County Jail. “On the correct medication he is completely stable.”
“Is this acceptable care?”
He was in jail for 15 days. Woodling hired an attorney, which cost her $5,500, because she was afraid they’d charge him with a felony. Jason received a lesser charge and was sentenced to time served and sent back to Hillmont.
Finally the county reinstated the temporary conservatorship and put Jason in a boarding care home in Oxnard. Jason called her the first night and texted her a video. “The bed was infested with bed bugs, it was horrifying. He couldn’t sleep. I took him to a hotel.” She stayed with him every night in the hotel, where he took his meds and seemed stable.
Then the VCBH ASSIST program took over, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Woodling was still going to work every day, “I didn’t want him to get sick, I went home.” The ASSIST Program kept Jason at the hotel. “He deteriorated from there. Stopped taking meds, started smoking weed again, living in squalor. It started all over.”
“Is this acceptable care for someone that has mental illness?” said an exasperated Woodling. “The last three weeks he’s been sitting in a hotel in Newbury Park, getting high, living in squalor, three days of trash and food in the room. Horrible living conditions. I’ve called VCBH twice for a wellness check. He needs a higher level of care.”
The county ended the support at the hotel and Jason was released back onto the streets. Then on June 29, he was held on a 5150 and taken to Los Robles Hospital. On June 30 the county approved his permanent conservatorship.
On July 2, about two hours after the interview with the VCReporter ended, Woodling sent a text. “I just talked to Los Robles and they’re going to let my son go. He’s conserved permanently [and] the public guardian has not found him anywhere to go, so now he’s going to be walking the streets homeless.”
This is the first in an ongoing series into the challenge of caring for the severely mentally ill in Ventura County.