btn-library

EDITORIAL Instead of Psychiatric Care, he Got Jail

E-mail Print PDF

Star Tribune
June 1, 2003

by Kate Stanley

DULUTH -- Explain this one: Gerald Lund, a sick guy from Floodwood, Minn., has spent the last six months in the St. Louis County Jail.

He hasn't been well for a long time. Even the folks from the county sheriff's office agree. Last Nov. 9, Gerald's worsening schizophrenia finally spurred them to give in to family pleas that he be escorted to a hospital.

That's how the plan was supposed to go, at least.

But somewhere along the way, the officers took a wrong turn. Instead of dropping their delusional passenger at the hospital, they took him to jail. There he has stayed -- overlooked and untreated -- for more than half a year.

Gerald isn't the only one who has suffered. His eight siblings have endured an ordeal of their own. What's hard, says sister Kelly Lund of Burnsville, is "knowing that our warm and compassionate brother is ill and unjustifiably confined." They can't get used to seeing Gerald trundle into court in the jail's trademark orange "bunny suit," as Kelly calls it -- "shackled like a murdering criminal."

How could such a thing happen in a society that claims it cares for the mentally ill?

Hard to say. The likeliest explanation is that, when the deputies eventually got around to nabbing him, Gerald was carrying a gun.

That shouldn't have mattered, says psychiatrist Stephen Setterberg, medical director of Prairie-St. John's Medical Center in Fargo, who often practices in Minnesota. "Possession of a gun should in no way preclude hospitalization," he says. "It's evidence of the need for treatment in someone otherwise disturbed.

"Of course, things shouldn't need to get to this point."

That's the point: It's folly to wait until someone with mental illness gets dangerous before stepping in. It pretty much guarantees that a sick person will start looking like a criminal. Then what's a cop to do?

Gerald's family thought the officers would do what they'd promised: take Lund to Miller-Dwan Medical Center, where a psych-ward bed was waiting.

After all, this wasn't Gerald's first bout with delusion. Periodically through his adult life, the 57-year-old has struggled with odd thoughts -- that people were trying to poison him, that West Duluth mobsters were after him, that the cops were in on the plot.

But usually when the thoughts got to be too much, Gerald ended up in the hospital. He got the medicine he needed to settle down, and went back home to the family farm in Floodwood, an hour north of Duluth. There he kept the place up, fixed the farm machinery, cared for his aging parents -- and did all of it excellently, his siblings agree. Even after his mother's death in 2001, they say, Gerald stuck with the routine.

"Oh, if you knew Gerald," says Kelly, an animal-welfare advocate. "He's always been quiet, and there's no gentler soul in the world. He'd nurse a crow with a broken wing, abandoned kittens. He was always helping out the neighbors. He cooks. He cans. He cleans."

But late last September things began to fall apart. Gerald walked into the bathroom to find his 94-year-old father dead. No one took the death as hard as Gerald, sixth of the nine Lund offspring. Grief gave way to delusion, and by late October Gerald was haunted anew with the idea that people were after him -- and that his siblings had united against him.

What actually united the Lunds, of course, was fear that their brother's mental health was sliding. And when sister Sharon Filiatrault -- a former schoolteacher from Minneapolis -- visited the farm with her husband in early November, panic ensued. Without warning, Gerald hurled Sharon from an easy chair. "You killed our father!" he bellowed. "How dare you come here!"

That was enough to prompt action. On Nov. 4, the morning after the incident, Sharon and brother Larry Lund -- a U.S. Customs officer in Duluth -- asked the St. Louis County Sheriff's Department for help. No dice. Officials there didn't consider the chair-toppling event serious enough to warrant a pick-up.

So Sharon contacted the county's Social Services Department. Its mental-health specialists, she and the others felt sure, would be able to help.

The woman who answered Sharon's query had little to offer. "She said she couldn't help," Sharon recalls, "unless Gerald was 'imminently dangerous to himself or others.' "

If that was the answer, it was flat wrong. Ever since the Legislature changed the civil-commitment law in 2001, counties have been authorized to help families pursue commitment much earlier in a psychiatric crisis -- long before danger is imminent. The law was revised to help people just like Gerald -- people with extensive psychiatric histories whose lapses follow a predictable path toward peril.

Gerald fit the bill. But county officials insisted there was nothing they could do. They never told the inquiring siblings that Gerald was eligible for pre-petition screening -- the county-run process that determines whether an individual is a good candidate for court-ordered psychiatric treatment. When brother William Lund of Edina heard about the process and called the county courthouse to request screening for Gerald, he got nowhere. The phone-answerers, he says, didn't know what he was talking about -- and referred him back to social services.

And so it went -- the royal runaround. Every county official the Lunds contacted sent them elsewhere. All seemed utterly unaware of the law and disinclined to act -- even though Gerald's psychiatrist at Miller-Dwan had by then called in a pick-up order to the sheriff.

That was the story, at least, until Gerald started to fall to bits. He shouted at two guys who'd bought some hay off his land, and allegedly pointed a gun at them.

That was Nov. 8. When the folks at the sheriff's office heard about it, they asked William -- a retired airline pilot -- to drive through the night from his home in Lakeville so that he could help lure Gerald from the farm. William obliged -- with the understanding, he says, that Gerald's destination was the hospital.

So early on Nov. 9, he stopped by the farm and invited Gerald to breakfast -- and then drove him straight into the arms of waiting officers.

Gerald meekly handed over the gun he was carrying -- a 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol. So all still seemed in order. Before Gerald was driven off, William recalls, officers said once again that he'd be taken to the hospital.

Help was at hand at last.

Only it wasn't. Somehow -- and no one will say exactly how -- Gerald never arrived at Miller-Dwan. He was taken instead to the county jail and booked on two charges of second-degree felony assault and one charge of illegal gun possession. Waiting hospital staffers were left to wonder where their patient had gone.

Thus did Gerald's travels end, and his travesty begin. He's been stewing in the jail's high-security unit for more than half a year now -- weathering the law's indignities and delays. Lawyers have squabbled; psychiatrists have dueled; Gerald's psychosis has waxed and waned. Sometimes he believes his brothers are plotting to gas him; other times he's merely despondent. Through it all, his siblings have begged for decency.

Decency, the family says, would have meant recognizing Gerald's behavior as a sign of illness, not of criminality. Dangerous people are taken to hospitals all the time, they note.

Didn't Gerald's gun antics change things? They shouldn't have. Cops disarm mentally ill people during mental-health interventions quite often. The prospect of violence in people with brain disorders is one reason easy access to treatment is so essential. As Thomas N. Faust, executive director of the National Sheriffs' Association, explains, such individuals "are no more violent than the rest of the population" when treated.

It's hard to see how things like this can happen -- given all the talk these days about the reprehensible neglect of the mentally ill. The nose-counters say a good fifth of jail and prison inmates have some sort of psychiatric diagnosis. Judges and prosecutors across the state are expressing new willingness to see that people with mental illness aren't warehoused behind bars.

Hennepin County Chief Judge Kevin Burke, instigator of his county's new mental-health court, makes the point simply: "In truth," he says, "treatment is the only option that keeps the community safe."

Yet even with eight dedicated advocates working 'round the clock for him, the sick guy from Floodwood couldn't escape the warehouse. As Gerald slumped into court for a long-awaited hearing the Thursday before last -- wrapped in manacles and orange jail garb -- District Judge Mark Munger, new to the case, seemed amazed he'd been locked up for so long. As they looked on, his throng of brothers and sisters seemed no less so. Here was a major-league schizophrenic -- plainly mentally ill and incompetent, Munger agreed -- and yet no one in the county had seen to his treatment.

If ever proof were needed that the "system" is broken, Gerald Lund's story provides it. Though Munger stayed the criminal case on May 22 and ordered that proceedings for commitment begin soon, there's no undoing the insults and deprivations Gerald has suffered.

The suffering is visible through the glass at the county jail, as Gerald tucks his head into the phone to talk to his sisters.

"Hang on, Gerald," says Sharon. "Only a few more days and you'll be out of here."

"You've got to get out," jokes sister Lois Hamilton, a corporate controller from Minnetonka. "You know, that jailhouse orange just isn't your color."

The quiet man behind the glass, hunched under the weight of loss, manages a smile.

"This isn't the right place for me," he says. "I really meant to go ice-fishing this winter."

Ah, well. Maybe next winter.

Kate Stanley is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


Reprinted with permission of the author. All rights reserved.

 
backgrounders-module

Visit Your State