Dan Morain: Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval is responsible for the reckless busing policy
12/15/2013 12:00 AM
10/08/2014 11:25 AM
JOIN THE CONVERSATION: How should states provide better access to mental health treatment? To write a letter, go to sacbee.com/sendletter. Or comment on our Facebook page at facebook.com/sacramentobee.
Fourteen months later, William P. Spencer remains angry about being discarded by the therapists and psychiatrists at Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas.
Spencer is one of the lucky ones. He’s alive and not on a locked ward, a jail cell or in the wind.
Unlike many other former Rawson-Neal patients, Spencer is able to tell the story of Nevada’s reckless practice of using Greyhound buses to rid itself of 1,500 mentally ill patients between 2008 and 2013.
“They’re dumping their responsibility,” Spencer told me by phone from the Mojave Desert town of Hesperia, where he has lived since his half-sister took him in a year ago.
Nevada officials won’t discuss Spencer in detail because of privacy restrictions, though Nevada health department spokeswoman Mary Woods said “our records contradict the information which Mr. William Spencer conveyed.” However, much of what Spencer told me is borne out in his 43-page Rawson-Neal medical record, and in a declaration he gave as part of a suit against Nevada over the busing.
Spencer moved to Las Vegas from Fresno in 2010 hoping for a new start. He found an apartment and work as a driver, and later at a private mental health treatment facility.
“I did my best. But behind the scenes I was battling these issues,” Spencer said.
Last summer, at 47, his health started failing, and depression set in. He checked into Harrah’s on the Vegas Strip, fashioned a noose out of a bed sheet and tied it to the shower bar.
Then he heard a housekeeper’s cart rattling down the hall.
“If I do this,” he remembers thinking, “I’m going to traumatize someone else.”
He left the room and made his way to a hospital, which sent him to Rawson-Neal, southern Nevada’s main psych hospital. That was on Aug. 26, 2012. There, Dr. Jacob Manjooran wrote:
“He states ‘I hate life and people.’ His mood has been very depressed for about 2 months, he has nightmares. Has made six suicide attempts.
“His only child, a son aged 22, died from drug abuse 2 months ago. Currently homeless. Nephew and an uncle committed suicide.”
The staff gave him antidepressants and therapy. But mostly, he sat. A notation in his chart says: “William is ‘tired of being left alone with my thoughts’ and feels that the staff is uncaring.”
On Sept. 18, as Rawson-Neal prepared to release him, he was asked whether he’d like to return to Southern California, where he grew up. He wanted to stay in Vegas. He especially didn’t want to go anywhere near the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale. A note in his file says Spencer “discussed feeling very scared about being back in Glendale where he has numerous memories of bad relationships and worries that he will be back at square one.”
The staff persisted, telling him California has much better services, and gave him a discharge plan. It was a cruel joke: “The patient is being discharged to Pasadena, CA, where he will be enrolled at the Passage Ways Program.”
Pasadena is next door to Glendale, the place he feared going. But he said a Rawson-Neal social worker assured him that Passageways was expecting him and that he’d get treatment there.
On Sept. 19, the hospital sent him by cab to the Greyhound depot in downtown Las Vegas and paid $66 for a ticket for the 1:35 a.m. bus to the Greyhound depot on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.
At the Greyhound counter, he asked why the bus wasn’t going to Pasadena. The clerk answered that bus didn’t stop in Pasadena. With no clue how he would get from L.A.’s Skid Row to Pasadena, he called Rawson-Neal.
Whoever he spoke with at Rawson-Neal offered him no help, except to suggest that he call Passageways when he arrived in Los Angeles and ask to be picked up, or call 911. He knew he could walk away from the Vegas depot, but had no other place to go and decided to take the Rawson-Neal social worker at her word.
As the bus crossed the desert, however, he became anxious. At a stop in Riverside, he gathered up his few coins and phoned Passageways. The Passageways receptionist had no idea who he was, had no beds, and would have no way of picking him up if he arrived in L.A.
Ryan Izell, a director at Passageways, told me he was unaware of anyone calling from Rawson-Neal trying to arrange care for Spencer. The service’s limited funding is reserved for people in Pasadena, and there aren’t enough shelters for the “hundreds of individuals who are homeless in Pasadena,” Izell said.
Distraught, Spencer walked to a police station. A cop, seeing he was in distress, drove him to a hospital. Within a day or so, he was homeless in Riverside. Desperate, he called a half-sister he hadn’t seen in a decade. She took him in. He is getting by on food stamps and is applying for work, without luck.
Spencer’s story parallels the one told by another Rawson-Neal patient, James Flavy Coy Brown. My colleague Cynthia Hubert detailed how Rawson-Neal placed Brown on a bus to Sacramento in February, though he had never been here before. Like Spencer, Brown was given a few days’ supply of medication and told to call 911 when he arrived.
Ever since, Hubert and her partner, Phillip Reese, have been unraveling the Rawson-Neal story. On Page A1 today, they detail what became of many of the most troubled Rawson-Neal patients.
A few months ago, Spencer saw news reports that San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera had sued Nevada over its patient-dumping. He called Herrera’s office, which referred him to Sacramento attorney Mark E. Merin. Merin has sued in federal court in Vegas on behalf of all patients bused from Rawson-Neal. Spencer is part of Merin’s suit.
“I had to get involved. I had to get myself together. I had to get functional. This case has lifted me up,” Spencer said. “It’s easy to say it’s the case worker’s fault. But they had an account for the bus tickets. I want to know who did this, who approved it.”
The responsibility rests with Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. Sandoval ended Nevada’s busing policy after The Bee exposed it. On Friday, he announced an investigation in response to Hubert and Reese’s findings. But he has kept on the job top officials on whose watch the policy was carried out.
Until recently, Sandoval and other Nevada officials defended the busing policy, saying it helped out-of-towners get home. Who did they think they were kidding? They sought to ease the burden of treating vulnerable, fragile and difficult people. Greyhound therapy was so much more convenient.
About This BlogDan Morain has been a columnist at The Bee since 2010 focusing on state government and politics. He previously worked for The Los Angeles Times covering the California Supreme Court when Rose Bird was chief justice, the Legislature when Willie Brown was speaker and the governor's office during Gray Davis' tenure. Dan Morain can be reached at email@example.com or 916-321-1907. Twitter: @DanielMorain.
Join the Discussion
The Sacramento Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.