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Mother Issues Tearful Plea to County Officials to Help Autistic Son in Custody at Jail

Nancy Speer says her 22-year-old son, Ben Warren, has gone without the mental health treatment he needs since being incarcerated

Nancy Speer sheds tears during a news conference Thursday as she makes a plea to Santa Barbara County Jail officials on behalf of her son, Ben Warren, who she says has not received the mental health treatment he needs since being incarcerated a year ago.
Nancy Speer sheds tears during a news conference Thursday as she makes a plea to Santa Barbara County Jail officials on behalf of her son, Ben Warren, who she says has not received the mental health treatment he needs since being incarcerated a year ago.  (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

By Lara Cooper, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @laraanncooper |

Just outside the Santa Barbara County Jail, where her son is being held, Nancy Speer issued a tearful plea to officials Thursday to provide her son with the mental health treatment she says he’s been refused since being incarcerated a year ago.

Ben Warren, 22, of Santa Barbara, was arrested last year on a charge of grand theft auto and has been serving a one-year jail sentence. He’s been kept in solitary confinement in a “safety cell” for most of that sentence, according to Speer.

Warren was diagnosed with psychosis and Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, as a child, and his family says he has refused medications since being in jail. Speer recalled visiting Warren on Feb. 4 at the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility. She said he has refused food and water, and has lost about 80 pounds since being in jail.

He also had large cuts and scratches all over his body, which Speer said she was told by staff were self-inflicted.

“These physical wounds don’t even touch how far away he’s gone in his psychosis,” she said.

When an attorney visited Warren earlier this year, she found him in his safety cell, naked and lying on the floor, with only a quilted safety gown draped over him.

Warren’s case paints a troubling picture of how mentally ill inmates might go untreated while in jail. Sheriff Bill Brown has repeatedly told the Board of Supervisors that the county’s jail system ends up being the de facto facility for the mentally ill and that law enforcement officers are not equipped to help treat them. The county’s Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services also has taken continual budget hits during the past several years, limiting its ability to help.

But Warren’s case poses a question: How badly must an inmate deteriorate before he or she is given treatment?

Under California law, if someone is deemed a danger to him or herself, the person can be taken involuntarily to an acute psychiatric facility for treatment.

Warren has been deemed a danger to himself several times, and taken to the county’s PHF, but has always been returned shortly after to a safety cell. At the jail, counseling is not available for inmates who are suicidal, only for those suffering from drug and alcohol abuse, according to Speer.

She told Noozhawk that ADMHS medical director Ole Behrendtsen said Warren didn’t qualify for conservatorship because he was not “greviously mentally ill.”

“I don’t know how on Earth he wouldn’t qualify,” she said.

Warren is scheduled to be released March 2, but Speer said she’s working to get him released early because of his grave condition. She also appealed to the public to speak up about the gaps in the mental health-care system.

“We’ve all been passive in allowing the mentally ill to be treated like this. ... People who are sick belong in hospitals,” she said, her voice breaking. “We do not have to tolerate this.”

A handful of mothers also shared during Thursday’s news conference how their children had ended up in jail because of untreated mental illnesses.

Suzanne Riordan, executive director of Families ACT!, which sponsored the news conference, discussed the history of declining mental health services in the state and the nation.

“The result is what we see today,” she said, adding that the group wasn’t blaming law enforcement for the gaps in care, but that she would like to see city and county leaders form a working group to look at the issue.

A sheriff’s deputy took notes during the news conference, and Sheriff’s Department spokesman Drew Sugars confirmed with Noozhawk what was said by Speer.

“This is an issue that we deal with,” he said.

Sugars said Brown was out of town and would not be making a public statement about Warren’s case.

“We do what we can,” Sugars said. “We don’t have enough bed space, PHF doesn’t have enough bed space. ... It really is a question for us as a society to address.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

comments powered by Disqus

» on 02.10.12 @ 07:07 PM

Any parent’s heartbreak at learning that a beloved child has chronic health issues can’t be fully described. So it’s easy to understand Speer’s sadness and frustration.

Since it’s hard to call a press conference to denounce Autism, her son’s illness, it seems to make her feel better to use her public time to question the Sheriff instead.

Law enforcement and the local penal system are not set up or funded to provide
treatment or therapy to the mentally ill. They exist to protect the community from illegal or threatening behavior.

Speer’s real beef seems to be the endless erosion of State and County support
for mental health programs and treatment options.

This erosion began under Reagan’s governorship (a bi-partisan effort) and accelerated dramatically during the recent mini-Depression, when local
mental health and probation programs were decimated by budget cutbacks.

Sheriff Bill Brown and his people do not get involved here if Speer’s son doesn’t
regularly break the law, get arrested, get convicted for his aberrant actions, and
get confined to Jail, all at great public expense.

We expect Sheriff Brown to be a good law enforcement executive, not a Freudian

Speer did her best raising, and protecting, a son with problems not of her (or his) making.

Now her son is an emancipated “adult”, but still chronically ill in a State that has little interest or resources to help him.

A tragic situation all the way around.

» on 02.11.12 @ 02:09 AM

This is a sad situation, as a law enforcment officer I deal with the mentally ill all the time.  Citizens call 911, but there are no resources.  Mentally disturbed people are brought to the hospital and released the next day.  A revolving door with no solution but incarceration once they do something serious.

» on 02.12.12 @ 03:01 AM

This is so terrible!!

I have a family member that has Asberger, and had one bad episode. He never hurt anyone but needed help that night because of taking too much medication. The officer said the only way we can help you is if he threaten you!! Felony stuff.

The family had no choice, and is paying the price today because of our terrible jail system. He still has never hurt anyone ever in his life!!

The government has so many needless departments they should get rid of, and this is one they could really improve on and help-!!

Please ut the waste in government, and help the real needy with mental illness. The welfare food stamp abuser take from the special needs people—SAD—

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