Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Wednesday Night Meeting - Legal Advocacy 10/8/2014

Wednesday Night Meeting - Legal Advocacy 10/8/2014


Last Wednesday night, October 8, 2014, my fellow NAMI NYC Staten Island Board Member, Paul Capofari, and his son, Peter, of Capofari Law, P.C., and Dominique DeSantis, of Staten Island CIRT, did a presentation on legal advocacy as it pertains to people with psychiatric illnesses or disabilities.  I have to say, they did a great job of covering everything. 

Paul talked about the criminal justice system, and how Rikers Island is the largest mental health facility in NYC.  Unfortunately, very often the first contact someone with a psychiatric illness has with the mental health system is through the criminal justice system.  This is true throughout the United States.  The US prison system is the largest de facto mental health system in the nation.  Why?  Often people who are exhibiting symptoms of a psychiatric illness fall through the cracks in the system.  They may lose their jobs due to a severe episode of illness, which goes undiagnosed.  Then they lose their homes, either through eviction or foreclosure.  They become homeless, so they're picked up by the police on quality of life crimes, like vagrancy, for sleeping in building lobbies or in public places.  Or they may become symptomatic and get into confrontations with people, either because they are delusional or psychotic (delusional means someone has false beliefs, and psychotic means someone is confused and out of touch with consensus reality) or because they have poor impulse control, OR because their coping skills have just been taxed to the max, and they don't have any internal resources left.  

Hey, you try being cold, dirty, hungry and tired, out in the elements for days on end, outcast and ignored by society.  See how you fare.  Then come back and tell me how well-behaved you were. 

These are the some of the reasons people with psychiatric illness encounter the criminal justice system. 

Ms. DeSantis talked about her agency, CIRT, which is an acronym for Court-based Intervention and Resource Team.  CIRT offers an alternative to incarceration by screening eligible participants who are admitted to Rikers Island, ascertaining that the participant is not charged with a violent felony offense, is assessed by the Department of Corrections to have a low or medium risk of readmission to jail and the participant gives consent to the Department of Corrections to share eligibility with the appropriate borough-based CIRT.  (From the CIRT flyer distributed at the meeting.) 

The participants receive community monitoring, direct support, and court reporting to ensure they return for court appearances while their criminal case is pending.  CIRT also provides comprehensive assessment, treatment planning, case management, onsite group services, cognitive-behavioral groups, and mental status exams by the psychiatrist on staff.  They can also provide help in applying for benefits, such as Medicaid and income support, as well as housing.  They also provide education and vocational training and employment services.  (From the CIRT flyer distributed at the meeting.) 

Paul and Peter also talked about wills, estates, and trusts, and how to plan financially for a child who has a psychiatric disability and is receiving government benefits.  One thing I learned:  MAKE A WILL AND CONSULT A LAWYER.  I cannot emphasize this enough, and it's not just because I like Paul and think he's a good lawyer.  If you own anything or have dependents or a spouse or a partner, and you want to make sure the right stuff goes to the right people upon your demise, you need a will, and you should hire a lawyer to help you write it, because you will want to make sure it can stand up in court under probate.  You may think you're not going to care, because you'll be dead, but do you really want your relatives or loved ones or the people or causes you care about cursing you in eternity because you were too *fill in the blank* to make a proper will?  Probably not! 

And if that's not enough, consider the case of the Swedish author of the famous Millennium Trilogy, Stieg Larsson.  He died suddenly, at the age of 50 of a heart attack, without leaving a will.  He had a long-term partner with whom he lived.  He also had a father and a brother.  Under Swedish law, she did not benefit from his estate.  It all went to his brother and father.  She protested, and this began a long, ugly legal battle over Larsson's estate.  At the time of his death, Larsson was not yet an international phenomenon, and his first book had not yet been published.  However, he was convinced he would make a fortune from his series.  Unfortunately, he did not plan well for this potential windfall, and his loved ones reaped the consequences of his inaction. 

So anyway, that was the evening's topic.  I had therapy earlier in the day, and it was a little chilly, so I wore a long-sleeved shirt and denim shirt and scarf.  At night it was even colder, so it called for a jacket and scarf.  The weather here has been changeable, ranging from warm to cold, sometimes within the same day.  It's confusing trying to figure out what to wear!  But that's what weather reports are for.