Dan Morain

Dan Morain: System fails struggling mom again

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

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Sacramento County jailers released Matthew Herrera a week ago Saturday after keeping him separate from other inmates for his safety and theirs. Because he had no clothes, jailers issued him a disposable paper jumpsuit and flip-flops, and sent him on his way.

Thirty-one hours later, he stole his mother's 10-year-old Honda, hurtled onto Highway 99, sideswiped an SUV, spun to a stop and ran, leaving his mom's car a mangled mess.

Herrera had been in jail for three months on a parole violation for assaulting a mental health care worker. He first was treated for mental illness in 1992, 10 days shy of his seventh birthday, after he wrapped a mini-blind cord around his baby sister's neck and explained that voices told him to do it. He has revolved in and out of jails, prisons, crisis centers, state hospitals, transitional housing and his mother's home ever since.

He takes illegal drugs when he can but refuses anti-psychotic medication unless he is compelled to do so. He dropped out of high school, learned no job skills, and has nothing going for him other than his mom, Karen Herrera, a 55-year-old state worker who cannot bring herself to forsake him, despite the pain he has caused.

There is no doubt that Matthew Herrera is severely mentally ill. But what's truly twisted is how we Californians deal with him and people like him. I first wrote about Karen Herrera's fight to find help for her son two weeks ago, reporting that he would be released at the start of the long Presidents Day weekend, with no particular plan for his care.

Herrera's parole officer met him at the downtown jail and took him to the Consortium for Community Services, a drop-in facility for mentally ill parolees that is funded by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Karen Herrera met them at the office, which is across North 12th Street from Goldies Adult Superstore and Loaves & Fishes, where homeless people can find a meal. She tried to hug him. He was rigid. She brought him pants, a T-shirt and a jacket, and medication, which he agreed to take. He blinked hard, gazed to the side and grunted a "yeah" when I said he seemed tired.

The consortium has slots for 55 to 60 parolees. There are 400 similar slots for mentally ill parolees statewide. Corrections officials estimate there are 22,000 mentally ill parolees. The consortium offers many services. Housing isn't one of those services.

"That's the unfortunate part. Housing wasn't a component. We don't have housing funds," program director Sarah Thomas said.

Consortium counselors did find a bed where Matthew might be able to sleep. But seeing how unstable he was, his mom decided to take him home once more, hoping to keep him calm until he could see therapists at the start of the workweek.

Once they reached her small tract house in Elk Grove, he went to his old room and slept until she woke him for a dinner of ribs and baked potatoes, his favorite. He ate, went back to bed, got up in the middle of the night, ate more and slept past 10 a.m. She made a breakfast of eggs and sausage, and he gorged again, so much so that he became ill.

He paced the house and cursed his mother. Accusing her of crazy things, he grabbed the phone, called Elk Grove police and demanded that she be arrested. That was 12:34 p.m. Sunday. Worried for her safety, she, too, phoned the cops. A squad car pulled up at 12:43, about 27 hours after Matthew's release from jail.

As she pleaded with the officers to take him, he took a vase, two fans and a wall decoration from his room and piled them into the hall, saying they were making him sick. The cops concluded he didn't meet the criteria for a "5150," a reference to the code that permits authorities to detain mentally ill people who are a danger to themselves or others.

When the officers left, Karen Herrera persuaded Matthew to walk to a grocery to buy a soda to calm his stomach. On the return, she came to a bench and sat. Overwhelmed by it all, she wept.

She pulled herself up, made it the rest of the way home, and called the group home mentioned by the consortium counselor. There was a bed. She took Matthew to a store to buy him clothes. She selected jeans and shirts. Oddly, he insisted on black slacks and a white dress shirt, not attire that he ever wore.

As they drove to the halfway house, she was struck by a realization: "He was buying his funeral clothes." He had tried suicide before. "I told him, 'I love you.' I told him, 'I would hate it if you hurt yourself.' " He didn't answer.

Adam Viney, who owns the six-bed Joseph & Mary's Transitional Living home off Fruitridge, told me he saw that Herrera was ill and doubted he would succeed at his home.

"He was real jittery," Viney said. "I mentioned the word of God, that we are faith-based and serve God and do Bible studies, and he jumped up."

He grabbed the keys to his mother's car. Before Viney could stop him, Matthew turned on the ignition and raced off.

Roberto Rodriguez, a father of three children, was driving north on 99 toward the Sacramento airport to board a flight to Idaho when Herrera's blue Honda sped toward him, out of control.

"I'm really lucky to be alive after the accident with this guy," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez pulled his sideswiped SUV to the shoulder, saw Herrera bolt, and drove in reverse to block his escape. Highway Patrol officers arrived and by 4:30, 31 hours after his release, Herrera was headed back to jail.

"I thought I could stabilize him," Karen Herrera said. "Boy, was I wrong."

In the course of reporting this column, I called Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who sponsored Proposition 63, the 2004 initiative that generates $1 billion a year for mental health care. By its terms, Proposition 63 cannot be spent to aid mentally ill parolees.

Steinberg wanted to hear firsthand Herrera's story, and I helped the two connect. They met in Steinberg's Capitol office for an hour Wednesday, shortly after Matthew was arraigned on a felony auto theft charge.

Steinberg asked that Proposition 63-funded counselors meet Matthew in the jail. They hope he could be diverted into Sacramento County's mental health court, where a judge could order him to take medication and receive therapy.

However, Herrera might be ineligible for the special court because his record includes a burglary conviction. Under the "three-strikes" sentencing law, Herrera could face years behind bars.

"We have a lot of holes to patch in this system," Steinberg said.

The senator is determined to do what he can for Karen and Matthew Herrera. "One life at a time," he said. That's noble. The Herreras need whatever help they can get, as do many other mothers and sons like them.