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Angry dad says police let his missing mentally ill son wander off

BY CONRAD HAMILTON Sunday Observer senior reporter hamiltonc@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, September 09, 2012    

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A father has questioned the competence of police personnel after his 36-year-old mentally ill son walked out of the Duhaney Park Police Station and disappeared, hours after the family sought the lawmen's help in getting him to the psychiatric ward at the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI).

The incident, which reportedly took place last week, is being described by one mental health support group as evidence of the scant regard shown by police personnel across the country for persons with mental conditions.

In February, the leadership of the police force, in a public statement, advised its members that there was no rule preventing them from intervening in potentially dangerous situations involving mentally ill persons. In its Force Orders, the High Command sought to rubbish the view that members of the force could only intervene when a mentally ill person commits a crime.

But, according to Errol Finn, the police at the Duhaney Park station seemed to have been waiting or his mentally incapacitated son to commit a crime before they assisted in getting him to Ward 21 — the UHWI's psychiatric ward.

Finn said his son, Mark, has struggled with mental issues for the past 16 years, and in recent months, had been living with a female friend and her family in Duhaney Park.

The elder Finn said he called the woman last week to inform her that Mark's mother, who lives in the United States, had sent some money for him.

It was at that point that he was told that his son had left the house and had been wandering the streets of the community.

Alarmed, Finn said that after receiving word on Mark's wherabouts, he went to the location to try to get him to return home with him.

However, the son, seemingly caught in the throes of a psychotic episode, resisted those efforts. The elder Finn said he went to his doctor who prepared a letter advising that Mark should to be taken to the UHWI.

Armed with his letter, the concerned father travelled from his home in Portmore back to Duhaney Park, but this time had no luck locating his son.

However, the following day, a friend who was among several keeping an eye out for Mark, saw him on Duhaney Drive and informed Finn, who rushed to the area.

In a bid to prevent his son from running away from him, and to avert any violent confrontation, Finn said he asked one of his friends to request assistance from the police, through the police emergency number 119.

"They told her that they were coming, and after we wait for more than 45 minutes he (Mark) started to walk away," said Finn. Unbeknown to him, his son had told another female friend that they could all meet him at the Duhaney Park Police Station the very evening.

"I parked my car at the gas station and walked up Duhaney Drive, because I never wanted to lose sight of him. As I walked down the other side of the road, the man (Mark) just walk right inside the police station," said Finn. The frustrated father presented the referral letter to a police sergeant, who agreed to assist in transporting Mark to the hospital.

"They say they going to assist us, and so we waited for over an hour, and two radio car come and them take him outside, no handcuff on him or anything. They never talk to him in a way that would calm him. They just try to force him into the car and him rebel. So the police lady say they can't take him that way, they have to restrain him; so they return him to the guardroom," Finn explained.

He waited more than three hours for the police to put Mark inside a vehicle for his trip to the hospital. All the while, Finn recounted, he watched police personnel walk in and out of the station.

Mark became more agitated as the hours stretched on and finally stood up and walked out of the police guardroom back onto Duhaney Drive.

They don't restrain him or nothing, you know, the police dem mek the youth walk right out the station and go away; and all now I don't know where he is."

Finn said appeals to the police at the station were useless and he had no choice but to chase his mentally ill son down the busy Washington Boulevard, where he, along with a female friend finally managed to signal a passing police unit to stop.

"I go on the Boulevard now and I see a police car with a flasher coming up, and a beg the lady to stop the car. When it stop, it turn out to be the same number 22 car that they tried to put him in at Duhaney Park. I explain what was happening to the policewoman and she started giving me a whole lot of explanation; that the hospital not going to take him that time of the night, and she complained that her collegues were unprofessional, and then tell me that there is nothing they can do," said the irate father.

Finn was forced to watch helplessly as the police car drove away just as he lost sight of his son, whom he has not seen since.

"Is not me alone, it happen to other people who have pickney like that, and those people (the police) just don't care. They behave as if certain things are only for the rich," the fuming father said to the Jamaica Observer.

But for nurse administrator at the Committee for the Upliftment of the Mentally Ill Joy Crooks, the problem of the poor handling of mental patients by the police isn't new, but it has been getting worse in recent years.

"The police must support mental health officers or other persons in taking anyone of those of unsound mind to a place of safety or a place of treatment, but most times the police are reluctant to provide such services. We know that it is part of their training, because each time this topic comes up we are told that it's part of their training, and part of the networking to support the mental health service delivery," said Crooks.

She added that in many other countries, there are established protocols governing the treatment of the mentally ill in crisis situations.

"It's a worldwide understanding that at times the mental health professionals, or the community, might call upon the police for assistance in any crisis. If, when the police go to the scene of the crisis, they themselves cannot manage — which sometimes happens — they, in turn, know that they can call the mental health officer who would respond and work alongside the police to get this person into a situation where treatment is available," Crooks explained.

Regarding the alleged poor response to the situation involving Mark Finn, officer in charge of the Duhaney Park station, Inspector Aaron Fletcher asserted that members of the force, including personnel at his station, were fully aware of the procedures governing the handling of mentally ill persons.

Fletcher explained that he was not at the station at the time of the incident and proceeded, via a telephone conference call, to gather details from a sergeant who said she became aware of the situation while attempting to restore order to a guardroom that was crowded with complainants and their relatives.

Sergeant Valrie Campbell said she had no information on what transpired before her arrival at the station, but explained that she made an attempt to transport the younger Finn after hearing him tell someone that he wasn't going with them.

But according to her, he bolted from the station the moment she indicated that he could travel with her.

While pledging to conduct further investigations into the matter, the inspector indicated that members of the force would do well with additional training, even as efforts are made by the constabulary to raise the profile of reports involving persons with mental illnesses.

He added that relatives of persons with mental challenges should also be prepared to assist the police in restraining and transporting these individuals to treatment facilities.

In February this year, Police Commissioner Owen Ellington said that no member of the force should ever tell members of the public that they cannot take action against persons who are said to be mentally challenged, and quoted from Section 32 of the Mental Health Act.

"On no account must a member of the public be told in future that the police cannot take action against a mentally disordered person unless the mentally disordered person committed an offence," Ellington wrote in his weekly Force Orders.

He also ordered that commanding officers and sub-officers in charge of stations make this the subject of lectures for March and April, to ensure that all under their command are made aware of their power and obligation under the Mental Health Act.

"Future complaints of the police's failure to effectively deal with reports against mentally disordered persons will attract the harshest sanction, where the report is confirmed," Ellington said then, adding that he had been getting complaints that police personnel were neglecting their duties by not acting against such persons.

"With regard to mentally disordered persons wandering at large, the frequent complaint is that whenever reports are made to the police about mentally disordered persons who wander at large and pose a threat to other members of the public, the usual police response is that there was nothing the police could do, the mentally disordered person would first have to commit an offence before the police act. This is not true."

Speaking with the Sunday Observer in March 2011, in the wake of the killing of two mentally ill persons by the police, Chaplain of the Jamaica Constabulary Force and Commandant of the Jamaica Police Academy, Assistant Commissioner of Police Gary Welsh said each member of the Force receives basic and in-service training in handling conflict involving the mentally challenged.

"We are trained to restrain mentally challenged persons, but we will neutralise any threat using the force necessary," he said then. The commandant suggested, however, that there was room for improvement in the level of service the organisation offered to persons with mental illnesses.

"Our standard operating procedure is to respond in partnership with a member of the health fraternity (but) often, there is no mental health person provided in that locale. Police work 24 hours per day and some mental health responders might not be available during 'silent' hours," he said. "But, it's a work in progress."

Up to press time, neither the police nor Mark Finn's relatives were able to locate him. Finn explained that he was unable to locate any photos of his son because he gave them to the police and other media houses on other occasions when Mark had gone missing.

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