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Mentally ill son's request for help heartens mom

Columbian - 1/28/2019

Jan. 28--A sob escaped Angela Daniels' throat as she walked away from the Clark County Courthouse. It was days after Thanksgiving, and she had just learned her son, who's been in jail since June, would undergo a third, and likely final, court-ordered competency restoration process.

The news was an early Christmas present for Daniels, whose 23-year-old son, Damian Daniel Rodriguez, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 20.

His attorney had requested that his case -- two counts of third-degree assault -- be dismissed. Daniels, 40, feared her son would be released, just as sick as he was when he was arrested, and would have nowhere to go. But he surprised her when he turned to his attorney and asked for more treatment.

"To actually acknowledge him needing or wanting more treatment ..." Daniels started to say, before dissolving into tears. "Maybe he's scared, because it's cold, and he has no place to stay. I don't care; the fact is he asked for (help)."

Rodriguez was arrested June 1 after prompting a lockdown at Clark College; he called 911 to report he was armed and killed two police officers on campus. Rodriguez was not armed, however, and no officers or civilians were injured, according to court records.

Daniels said she believes her son wished to die by suicide by cop.

Vancouver police had contacted Rodriguez the night before. Daniels called 911, she said, and asked for officers trained in crisis intervention to do a mental health check on him. He was at Esther Short Park screaming that he was going to die. Police located Rodriguez, but they couldn't intervene, because he refused to speak with them, Daniels said.

Daniels had also called the county's crisis line three or four times in the days leading up to the Clark College incident but was told there was no staff available to help.

"Fighting with my son is difficult, but fighting the system was by far 10 times harder," Daniels said.

On Feb. 1, 2018, Daniels was taking her son to a grocery store when they got into an argument over money. He threatened to kill her, and punched her in the face. Rodriguez was charged with domestic violence harassment and fourth-degree domestic violence assault. He pleaded guilty to the latter charge and was given credit for time served.

Despite being granted another go at competency restoration -- during which defendants are taught about the criminal justice system in an attempt for them to be found mentally fit to stand trial -- Rodriguez waited more than a month in the jail for a spot to open up at Western State Hospital. He was transferred there Jan. 4, his mother said.

Rodriguez is just one of thousands of people with mental illness in Washington who wait weeks or months to get into a treatment facility. Meanwhile, their case is put on hold and their condition deteriorates.

For years, the state has failed to follow a federal court order in a class-action lawsuit, known as Trueblood, that enforces a person's constitutional right to timely competency evaluation and restoration services. The court in 2015 ordered the Department of Social and Health Services to provide in-jail competency evaluations within 14 days and inpatient competency evaluation and restoration services within seven days. Since then, the court has found DSHS in contempt and imposed millions in monetary sanctions.

In December, a federal judge gave final approval to a settlement agreement between DSHS and Disability Rights Washington to overhaul the state's mental health system: hiring more evaluators, increasing the number of beds available in state mental hospitals and providing more community-based services to keep mentally ill people out of the criminal justice system.

Daniels described her son's struggles as "the new normal."

"It's hard to look to the future when you're living day to day. I want him to be happy. I want him to be stable. I want to hang out with him -- go to the movies or dog park. I want him to have a somewhat normal life," she said. "The fact he asked (for help) gives me hope."

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(c)2019 The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.)

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