|James Heidtbrink may be a "menace" to cyclists, but those who love him say he's a person who needs help.|
Turns out the story about the criminal charges against the 39-year-old Portland man is a bit more complicated.
Last Thursday, the day after our story ("Two-Wheeled Menace," WW, Aug. 9, 2006) ran, Heidtbrink appeared in Multnomah County Circuit Court for an involuntary commitment hearing initiated after his mother called police.
At the hearing, Heidtbrink testified that he would take his medications—an anti-psychotic and a mood stabilizer—and Judge Julia Philbrook decided not to commit him, says Heidtbrink's mother, Charlean Bizal.
Her son's story is an example of the long-running failure by police and social-service agencies to keep chronic offenders like Heidtbrink out of jail, off the streets and in treatment. The officer investigating the criminal charges against Heidtbrink didn't know about the hearing until he received a summons prompted by our story.
Multnomah County jails have about 110 beds dedicated to patients with mental health problems. While most of the beds stay full, they represent just a fraction of the total number of inmates who may need special care. In 2005, about 15 percent, or 6,600, of the 44,000 jail bookings had a history of mental problems.
Heidtbrink, the shy only son in a family of five daughters, has suffered from bipolar disorder since age 15, Bizal says. Since his diagnosis, he has been hospitalized three times. Bizal knows her son's behavior can be frightening.
"He's done some stupid and crazy things," she says. "We've tried to get him help over and over again."
Heidtbrink has ridden his bike in front of an oncoming bus to wave at the driver and wandered into neighbors' homes holding a giant pair of pruning shears. Bizal can't allow her son to stay at her Northeast Portland house, especially during holidays, when her daughters' children are around.
"It really, really breaks my heart," says Bizal, who works as a psychiatric nurse. "He's my son, and I love him."
Bizal had prayed that the judge would commit her son, not because it was the best choice but because she's fearful of what will happen if he stops taking his medication.
The process of involuntary commitment is complicated. Remember that the mentally ill have civil rights, too. First, two doctors must sign a form stating that the patient qualifies for a "hold," which means the patient is kept for treatment. An investigator is assigned to research the case, which must come before a county judge within five days after the hold. A judge can order commitment only after finding the patient can't take care of basic needs or poses a threat to him- or herself or others.
The problem, most experts agree, is that there are few options between commitment and letting people loose with no safety net whatsoever.
Because Heidtbrink lost his Oregon Health Plan coverage (because he failed to pay the $6 monthly premium), he will have to figure out a way to get his prescriptions filled. He can stay in homeless shelters, or on friends' couches, and get care from walk-in clinics funded by the county, most of which provide services for only a few months.
"The problem with this guy is that nobody gets a financial incentive to help him," says John Holmes, director of the Multnomah County office of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. "Nobody gets paid to help this guy. That's why commitment becomes the last resort."