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WHEN HELP IS TOO LATE

The mentally ill don't belong in jail, advocates say. A mental health court is needed.

Michelle Fenters is relieved that her mentally ill son is finally getting help.

But she fears what might happen next to 19-year-old Brad.

Recently declared incompetent to stand trial after months in jail, the Department of Children and Families sent Brad to a treatment center. Brad, who has paranoid schizophrenia, was arrested in October after he stabbed his brother twice during one of his episodes.

But Brad is getting help only so he can stand trial for the aggravated battery charge against him. Depending on the outcome of his treatment and the trial, he could end up in prison for years - for something he did while he was ill.

It's an example of what local and state leaders are trying to stop: the cycle of mentally ill inmates who flow in and out of the court system, only to languish in jails at a high cost to taxpayers.

"A tragedy had to happen in order for him to get any kind of real help," Fenters said. "Why couldn't there have been help before something bad happened? This has been a nightmare."

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The state spends an estimated $250-million a year on 1,700 beds for inmates with serious mental illnesses, according to a report released last year by the state Supreme Court. At this rate, the state will be spending $500-million a year by 2015.

The money is used to restore competency in inmates, such as Brad, so they can stand trial for their crimes. Then they're sent to jail or prison, where they continue to cost the state money.

The report envisions using that money instead on community-based mental health treatment, before people get arrested. It has spurred talk in Hernando about the creation of a mental health court, such as one that currently exists for Pasco and Pinellas counties.

There, people with mental illnesses are sentenced to treatment by one of several local providers instead of going to jail. The program operates on a mix of county, state and federal grants.

Law enforcement and mental health leaders in Hernando say that creating such a court would be beneficial to the county.

"It would be another way for people to get help," said Hernando County sheriff's Deputy Jason Deso, who has worked with the Hernando chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Deso is also one of several deputies trained to deal with the growing number of residents who are taken into custody under Florida's Baker Act after they are declared a harm to themselves or others by law enforcement authorities or a psychiatrist.

"And it would shed some light on some of the problems that the system has," Deso said, "where mentally ill people slip through the cracks, into prisons and don't get help."

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Fenters knew that something was going to happen with her son. It was just a matter of time.

During the previous three years, she had watched Brad get worse and worse. What started out as depression morphed into increasingly intense cycles of paranoid schizophrenic episodes.

He couldn't keep jobs. He lost friends.

He began to talk of killing her and her other son, 17-year-old Ryan. Brad said voices told him that he would get power and energy from them.

He started keeping knives under his bed because he thought someone was hiding in his mattress, waiting to rape him while he slept.

His mother quickly figured out that the only way to get her son help was to have him taken into custody under the Baker Act.

In Hernando, two facilities accept residents who have been taken into custody under the law. Both have limited space. As with most families, expensive private treatment wasn't an option for Fenters.

It was at one of these local facilities that Brad was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and finally given some medication. But without the intense therapy he needed, Brad often stopped taking the medicine, and the cycle would begin again.

So each time Brad came home from either a few hours or a few days of treatment, his mother knew it was like putting a Band-Aid on a festering wound.

She was asleep the night of Oct. 26, when Brad and Ryan got into an argument. Brad walked off and came back with a 6-inch hunting knife.

Ryan remembers hearing Brad talk about power and energy just before he was stuck once in the chest, and again in the hip. He has since recovered from a punctured lung.

"We all understand that Brad needs help," Michelle Fenters said. "But now he has a criminal record for something he doesn't understand that he did. He doesn't belong in jail."

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According to Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Leifman, chairman of the Supreme Court's mental health subcommittee, the ultimate goal is to stop recycling people like Brad through the system.

By creating more competent approaches to mental health treatment, the focus can shift to giving people the help they need.

"Instead of thinking of this as a criminal justice issue, we first need to think of it as a disease issue," Leifman said. "It's just like someone having cancer. If you catch it early, you go into recovery and it can be very treatable."

NAMI Hernando president Darlene Linville has pushed the issue in meetings with county commissioners, law enforcement and other key players in local government. The criminalization of people with mental illnesses is a top concern of NAMI on the national level.

"We could save taxpayers big money by implementing the Supreme Court plan," Linville said. "And people like Brad would not be sent back to jail, where there will not be any more treatment."

But as she waits for her son to get better, Fenters wonders if it's too late for him.

"This is all we wanted from the beginning," Fenters said. "But what happens after the trial?"

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com, or (352) 848-1432.

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