‘WE DANCED LIKE LUNATICS’
Jean was about to turn 67, and it didn’t look like her crusade was ever going to end. She lived in Astoria with two of her sons, surviving on Social Security checks. She couldn’t afford to bail out Tara—$150,000 for the Brooklyn case alone. She couldn’t afford the cost of putting Tara in a private psychiatric hospital. She couldn’t even afford a private attorney. All Jean really had was her mouth and her word processor. “Tara is no more a criminal than I am,” she’d say. “But the system slowly weaves a noose around your neck. Once you get involved with the criminal justice system, you’re a dead guppy.”
For seven years, Jean had been writing letters, making phone calls, and sending faxes on Tara’s behalf. She’d amassed hundreds of pieces of paper: letters she’d written to the state mental health commissioner, letters to politicians, form letter responses, lists of advocates and their phone numbers, news clippings, psychiatric reports, jail records, hospital records.
The documents that angered Jean the most were the insurance claim forms from Pilgrim state hospital, where Tara had spent 18 months at a cost of about $15,000 per month. Medicare paid these bills, but to Jean they represented yet another insane aspect of the mental health system: The price tag for Tara’s stay at Pilgrim had come to more than $180,000 a year, and yet Tara had come out no better than she went in. “Where the hell does all the money go?” Jean would say. “It’s absolutely mind-boggling! For that kind of money, each patient could go on a world tour with a private therapist.”
Jean had waged dozens of battles on Tara’s behalf, with few victories. One of the only triumphs had occurred in 2001 when Tara’s Manhattan lawyer, Frank Rothman, had convinced a judge that she should not have to join the state’s sex offender registry. (Since Tara had pleaded guilty in 1998 to attempting to kidnap a child, she’d been automatically required to register as a sex offender after her release from prison—even though she had never been accused of doing anything sexual.) There was so little good news in the McDonald family that they had to appreciate whatever they got. They celebrated the judge’s decision during a Valentine’s Day party at Pilgrim. “We danced like lunatics,” Jean recalled. “The place was really hopping by the time we left.”
Ever since Jean had started going to court for Tara, she paid close attention to news stories about the criminal justice system. One of the cases that bothered her the most involved Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson, the young couple from New Jersey who killed their newborn son by putting him in a plastic bag and tossing him in a dumpster. Brian spent only 20 months in prison; Amy did 24 months. Already, Tara had been in Rikers longer than both of them.
When Jean wasn’t berating Rikers personnel on the phone or typing angry letters or trekking to court or to jail, she was in the house, usually watching PBS or listening to Randi Rhodes on Air America. She drank lots of coffee and smoked cigarettes all day long. Just about every night, Tara called. There usually wasn’t anything new to discuss, but it was good to hear her voice. They talked about what Tara had eaten for lunch, who she was playing cards with, what books she was reading.
Jean wanted to be able to spend time with her daughter. Not talking on a jailhouse pay phone. Not leaning over a courtroom banister for a five-second hug. She wanted to be able to meet Tara for lunch, take her shopping, maybe sign her up for school or dance classes. Another mother might have given up long ago, but Jean refused to stop fighting. Her greatest fear, the one that ran through her mind all the time, was that Tara would have to live in an institution of one kind or another for the rest of her life.
To improve Tara’s mental health right now, Jean thought she should be moved back to Kirby—not stay on Rikers—while she waited for a mental health program to accept her. Jean had outlined this request in letters to the commissioners of the city jail system and the health department, without any success. “It’s been over two years!” Jean hollered at Lieberman, Tara’s attorney, in the hall of the Brooklyn courthouse one morning. “Why can’t they just start treatment and put her in Kirby? Tell them to put another box on the admission sheet!”
Lieberman gave the answer she’d already heard a dozen times: Kirby is for people who fail their mental-competency test; once they’re considered mentally fit enough to be prosecuted, they go back to Rikers. Jean had never erupted like this before in front of Lieberman; she usually saved these tirades for friends and family. She placed a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just want to scream at someone.”
LETTERS TO A JUDGE
Many parents liked the Mental Health Court because it kept their children out of state prison, but Jean was skeptical about whether it would work for Tara. To get into a mental health program, Tara would have to plead guilty to attempted kidnapping. If she completed the program without getting into any more trouble, the felony would be erased from her record and she’d be allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor. It seemed simple enough, except that when it came to Tara nothing was ever simple. If things went awry—if, for example, she convinced someone to decrease her Prolixin dosage, the delusions returned, and she began trying to save babies once again—she was going to state prison for at least seven years.
The Mental Health Court places defendants in residential programs where they are free to walk out the front door. There are strict rules and curfews, but the facilities are not circled by razor wire. Tara was excited by the prospect of getting out of jail; this same possibility terrified Jean. She was convinced that Tara needed to be locked up first in a hospital where she could get consistent care for a year or two—where she could gain more insight into her illness and learn how to manage it better. This was not a possibility, however, unless Tara pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Neither Jean nor Tara wanted to go down this path. As Jean put it, “I don’t want her warehoused for 15 years in Kirby.”
On September 12, 2004, after Tara had been locked up for 789 days, Jean sat down in front of her word processor. “Dear Judge D’Emic,” she typed. “I plead with you to find an appropriate secure facility with the capability of treating Tara competently.” She printed out the letter. If she mailed it, she knew Tara would be angry with her. She worried her words might sabotage Tara’s changes of getting into a program, so she put the letter aside.
Nine days later, she wrote another letter:
Dear Judge D’Emic,
I am Tara McDonald’s mother and I write to express an opinion about her need for Intensive Therapy and humane consideration. Tara needs to be in one place long enough to establish a trusting relationship with a good, interested, capable therapist. Long enough to glean some understanding of her illness and to cultivate an ability to recognize and control her behavior. It begins with medication but that is only a beginning.
Without these considerations being addressed she will be condemned to repeat her behavior by the failed system that exists today for the mentally ill. . . . Since 1997 she has suffered under this system—trying to adjust to many transfers, new staffing, different doctors, changing treatments, fragmented care. It works against the establishment of trust, community of relationships, any level of comfort and undermines the therapeutic process. . . .
If failure comes with the program as set up now it will be seen as 100% Tara’s responsibility. Not true. New York State has a responsibility to “care and treat.” . . . They have certainly spent enough money. (Bills enclosed)
I am watching this legal steamroller coming at her, knowing that if someone doesn’t address these issues she and people like her will be crushed by slow, malignant neglect.
Jean McDonald RN
The next time Jean went to court, Judge D’Emic invited her up to the bench. “Jail isn’t any good for her,” he said. “I understand that.” He explained that he didn’t have any control over the state budget, that there was nothing he could do about the shortage of treatment options. Jean shared some of her concerns too. “Tara has a seven-year history of New York State kind of treatment, and I’m just watching her die,” she said.
Throughout the fall and into the winter, Jean continued to go to Tara’s court dates. “Hang in there,” Lieberman, the Brooklyn lawyer, said on October 14, 2004. “This is continued progress.” On November 5, staffers from FEGS interviewed Tara for the second time, to decide if they would accept her. “We’re so close I can taste it,” Lieberman said. “It really looks like it’s going to work out.”
In the end, though, it didn’t work out. The program rejected Tara. Had Tara botched the interview? Had Jean angered the staff when she’d called with questions? Jean didn’t know, but the answer didn’t really matter. They were back where they started, except that now Tara had been locked up without a conviction for an extraordinarily long time—nearly 900 days.
At the end of 2004, Tara had been making plans—to clean out her cell, give away her possessions, start her life once again. “I think this time I’m really going to get it through my head to mind my own business,” she said. But then she heard FEGS had rejected her, and she became even more despondent. When Tara called home, Jean wasn’t even sure what to say anymore. The hope that Tara would get into a program had carried them both along for months, giving them something to talk about and look forward to.
In March 2005, Tara was told that another mental health agency in Manhattan, The Bridge, had agreed to accept her. Nobody knew exactly how long the wait for a bed would be. April 11 marked her 1000th day locked up without a conviction. Ten days later, she went to court in Brooklyn and pleaded guilty to attempted kidnapping. This was another Alford plea: She didn’t actually admit intending to kidnap anyone. The following day, she entered the same plea in Manhattan. She will have to spend five years at The Bridge program, then another three years on probation. She is expected to move into a residence on the Lower East Side in the next week or two.
April 26 is Tara’s 38th birthday. When she was a child, birthdays always meant a party with friends and a Carvel ice cream cake bought by her mother. Now that she is in her thirties, birthdays mean something very different. She was locked up for her 31st, 32nd, 33rd, 34th, 35th, 36th, and 37th birthdays. She will spend her 38th birthday making yet another trip from Rikers to Brooklyn State Supreme Court; the judge wants to keep an eye on her while she waits for an empty bed. Jean, meanwhile, is less concerned with birthday celebrations than with keeping her daughter out of jail for good. “I have my fingers crossed,” she says.
Part Four: ‘We danced like lunatics’; Letters to a judge; 1000 days