On Monday, July 14, 2014, in the Orlando suburb of Tavares, Fla., another family was slain by the tragedy of violence from serious mental illness not treated, underscoring the need for a reform of Florida laws so that families can get treatment for loved ones when they are ill.
Police said that James Earl Jones, 32, used a baseball bat to kill his girlfriend Shannon Ratliff, 42, and her mother, Mavis Ratliff, 65, and left her brother, Tavares sanitation worker Eddie Ratliff, 51, critically injured. Police identified James Earl Jones, 32, as the attacker at the home at 905 Hibiscus Court.
Police found Jones body floating in nearby Lake Dora, they said, in a suicide.
In a story on the impact on the community, “Tavares residents come to grips with baseball-beating deaths,” Orlando Sentinel reporters Hanna Marcus and Jayna Omaye interviewed Jones’ father, Albert Jones, who said his son had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and the “family was frustrated by trying to get help for their son at LifeStream Behavioral Center, Lake’s mental-health provider, other than to get his prescription changed.”
The Orlando Sentinel story included an interview with a neighbor, who didn’t identify herself.
“He was not a monster, he was just sick,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. “It’s a horrible tragedy.”
In a column, “Tavares tragedy raises questions about treatment for mentally ill,” columnist Lauren Ritchie argued on the pages of the Orlando Sentinel that federal reforms in the 1980s has abandoned those with serious mental illness and their families.
“Most people who are mentally ill are simply out there — relying on family members without medical training to guide their lives…”
The Orlando Sentinel highlighted in another story, “Baseball-bat killings rekindle debate over Florida’s care of mentally ill,” the family’s struggle to get treatment for their son.
Twice in the week before the slayings, Jones’ parents tried to have their son admitted to LifeStream Behavioral Center, a psychiatric hospital with 20 facilities serving Lake and Sumter counties. Police records show Jones, 32, suffered from schizophrenia and a bipolar disorder.
The hospital gave him new medications but did not admit him.
James Earl Jones’ father laid out a chronology of events that families are too familiar with.
“They told him there was nothing they could do for him,” his father, Albert Jones, said a day after Jones killed his longtime girlfriend, Shannon Ratliff; her mother, Mavis Ratliff; and Shannon’s brother, Eddie Ratliff.
“This could have been avoided … he volunteered to go to LifeStream.”
LifeStream would not discuss what happened, citing federal law prohibiting disclosure of patient information.
Unfortunately, LifeStream’s Chief Hospital Officer and Senior Vice President Rick Hankey but the blame, as happens too often, on families:
“We get a lot of families that think they can dump their loved one on us and we’re going to be responsible for housing them,” said Hankey. “The families often don’t understand mental illness.”
But, in fact, police records chronicle a family that took care of their son, but, like any family who needs help when a loved one is sick, was very much concerned about getting treatment for their son.
Jones took medications for his illness, according to Tavares police records, and no information could be found since the killings that he had a history of repeatedly losing control.
He had just two previous encounters with Tavares police — both on the same day — and none with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, according to interviews.
On the night of Dec. 20, Tavares police responded to back-to-back requests by Jones’ parents to commit him to LifeStream, records show.
His parents explained he was depressed over the death of his dog, Remi, and had stopped taking medication to control schizophrenia and a bipolar disorder. They warned he was afraid of police officers and could become aggressive, records state.
“He needs to go to LifeStream,” a dispatcher told officers, records show. “He is talking out of his head.”
On the first of the two encounters with Jones that night officers decided his behavior had not risen to the level where they could force him under the state Baker Act to be evaluated as a possible danger to himself or others. That changed upon their return.
“Jones was talking nonsense and not making much sense … something about white devils and the power of God,” an officer wrote. “Jones also kept telling the officers on scene to shoot him.”
Initially willing to go with officers, Jones refused to get into a patrol car after being handcuffed. He struggled with four officers and was shocked three times with a Taser before they could take him to the hospital, records show.
The Jones family needed help for their son. They didn’t get it. We can get help for families everywhere by supporting legislation that increases the number of psychiatric beds in our hospitals. We can’t bring back the casualties from this tragedy–James Earl Jones, Shannon Ratliff and Mavis Ratliff–but we, as a nation, can make sure that when other families like the Joneses need treatment for a loved one, there is a bed and the best of treatment waiting for them.
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