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Local News

While Son Struggled with Mental Illness, Father Fought His Own Battle

Cliff Detty's death reveals scope, limitations of seemingly impenetrable mental health system. First in a series

Rich Detty and his late wife knew something was wrong with their son, Cliff, but were repeatedly stymied in their attempts to get him help from the mental health system. Cliff Detty, 46, died in April while in restraints at Santa Barbara County’s Psychiatric Health Facility.
Rich Detty and his late wife knew something was wrong with their son, Cliff, but were repeatedly stymied in their attempts to get him help from the mental health system. Cliff Detty, 46, died in April while in restraints at Santa Barbara County’s Psychiatric Health Facility. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

[Noozhawk’s note: Noozhawk is following the ordeal of Rich Detty, a Santa Maria man whose son, Cliff, died while under restraints at a Santa Barbara County psychiatric health facility in April. First in a series.]

Just before 4 a.m., Rich Detty heard a knock. The Santa Maria man opened his front door and was surprised to see a Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputy standing there. Detty assumed the officer was trying to find his son, Cliff, since he’d had several run-ins with the law and he thought there might be an outstanding warrant.

But Cliff Detty wasn’t home. He had been taken to the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility in Santa Barbara the evening before.

The deputy assured the elder Detty that he was there to see him, not his son. Then came the life-altering news: Cliff had died at the psychiatric unit just a few hours before. In disbelief, Detty grappled with what he had just heard.

“I kept thinking ‘there must be a mistake, my son was in extremely good physical condition,” Detty recalled to Noozhawk.

Cliff, 46 years old and a sturdy 6 feet and 187 pounds, had played baseball in college and loved the outdoors.

“I thought ‘there is no way he could have died,’” Detty said. That doubt remained until he went to the mortuary the next week. Although he chose not to view his son’s body, seeing the silhouette under the sheet made the death real, with a heartbreaking clarity.

Before Cliff left home for the final time, Detty had tried one last approach to get his long-troubled son the mental health help he needed. Cliff had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a mental illness that interferes with the ability to think clearly and manage emotions, and if left untreated can lead to hallucinations and delusions. He had been in and out of his father’s home prior to his death in the Psychiatric Health Facility, or PHF, on April 29, 2010.

But understanding Cliff’s plight — and his family’s ordeal — requires looking beyond that night at PHF, and at the last months, and years, of his life. (Click here for a Noozhawk slide show.)

A solid man with a steady voice who lives in a spacious two-story house in Santa Maria, Detty relates his son’s experience. Detty’s wife died of cancer several years ago, and now, with Cliff gone as well, the large home seems to engulf even a strong presence like his. Sitting at his kitchen counter, with his two dogs napping at his feet, Detty recounts reaching out for help from the police and mental health departments, but repeatedly being turned away.

The story of Clifford David Detty II poses several questions: Where can families turn when the system has failed? And, whose responsibility is it, really, to care for the mentally ill?

As a kid growing up in Santa Maria, Cliff loved to fish, spend time outside, and had all the trappings of a happy childhood. But toward the end of high school, Detty suspects Cliff may have become involved with drugs. It was difficult for him and his wife to accept.

“He was popular, he was good looking, he was a great athlete, he got great grades,” Detty said. “There’s just no way he would get involved in it.”

The Dettys suspected something had gone awry when Cliff was about 30. He was constantly getting kicked out of apartments and couldn’t keep a job. Detty and his wife would give Cliff expensive gifts and he’d lose them. Then Cliff needed two knee surgeries, and the Vicodin the doctor had prescribed to control the pain until his next checkup disappeared quickly.

Cliff had been arrested before for marijuana possession, and had spent five months in jail — and off of drugs. Detty said when he picked Cliff up after his release, he was acting just as strangely as he was when he had gone in. “That should have told me right then that he had a mental problem,” he said.

Cliff lived sporadically at home, when he wasn’t living in a cabin in the hills and, later, on the streets. It was cycle that continued after the death of Detty’s wife, who had little tolerance for drug use of any kind and didn’t let Cliff live at home. Six months would go by and Detty would feel sorry for his son, and allow him back home, hoping the pair could work things out. That cycle lasted about two years “but it was always the same thing,” he said. “He was a very difficult person to live with.”

In February, Detty woke up one morning to discover the home’s kitchen in disarray. He confronted Cliff, who had been sleeping on a couch upstairs, and demanded that the pair talk. Detty told him, “If you can’t live by my rules and clean up after yourself, then you can’t live here.” That was enough to send Cliff into a tirade, and when Detty picked up the phone to call 9-1-1, Cliff grabbed for his father, ripping his shirt.  Cliff flew around the house, breaking random things, including a flat-screen television, then stormed out the door.

He had been gone for 10 minutes by the time Santa Maria police arrived. Detty told the officers he knew where Cliff would be — nearby Waller Park was one of his favorite hangouts — but he says the police declined to go after him. “The officer said ‘Nah, we’ve got enough of these crazy people to deal with’,” Detty said.

Over time, Cliff’s struggle with schizophrenia became more visible.

“He would start talking to these people ... and he’d never done that before,” Detty said.

One conversation Detty remembers occurred two months before Cliff’s death. “What would you do if I hit you,” Cliff asked his father. “I said ‘I’d call the police and have you arrested. Why?’” Rich recounted. Cliff answered that the voices in his head were telling him he should hit his father.

“I was never afraid of Clifford doing anything to me, until maybe the last two months,” he said. “I finally got to a point where I thought he was dangerous and he could hurt me or anyone.”

Two weeks before his son’s death, Detty twice went to Santa Maria Crisis & Recovery Emergency Services, or C.A.R.E.S., which handles emergency response in mental health, alcohol or drug-related situations. But each time, he came away empty-handed.

“No one seemed interested in helping me,” Detty said.

At some point, Cliff sought out mental health services on his own. His medical records show that he visited a Santa Maria outpatient clinic in 2007, and may have been diagnosed then as a paranoid schizophrenic. Although it’s unknown exactly when and where he was diagnosed, Cliff never told his father. In fact, Detty found out by accident several years earlier that Cliff had been diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic when a Social Security worker let it slip when Detty went in to fill out paperwork to receive and administer his son’s Social Security check.

“No one before that or after that has told me anything about his diagnosis,” he said. “They’re not allowed to give me any information.”

In one sense, mental health services employees were just following the rules, intended to be respectful of Cliff’s, and other patient’s, rights. But what happens when an intervention is needed, and the person needing the intervention isn’t well enough to allow it? Mental health offices in both Santa Barbara and Santa Maria had told Detty they couldn’t help with his son. He was told that if he could somehow convince Cliff to come into the office, they would talk with him. But Cliff was in denial that he had a problem, and there was no way he’d go to the office for help.

Detty called the office several times during Cliff’s final weeks.

“I told them he was really bad and I was afraid he would hurt someone soon,” he said.

Each time Detty was told the clinic couldn’t help unless he could get his son through the doors. The only other option was if the police called C.A.R.E.S. to send out a mobile evaluation team to assess Cliff. That is exactly what happened. 

Two days before Cliff died, Detty called the police one last time. Cliff was out in the garage, sitting by himself, naked and delusional. When the officers arrived, they went out to talk to Cliff, while Detty stayed in the house. The officers came back inside with Cliff and they took him upstairs to get dressed.

“I decided if the police saw him in this condition they would surely take him in on a 5150 hold,” said Detty, referring to the term for a situation in which a person can be deemed unsafe to himself or others and be taken in for emergency psychiatric treatment.

The officers took Cliff outside after he dressed, but they didn’t take him for mental health treatment, as Detty soon learned. Five minutes later, a knock came from the front door, and Detty opened it to find Santa Maria police Officer Shawn Fuggs on his doorstep. Fuggs, who did not respond to requests to comment for this story, said the police would not be taking in Cliff but instead had told him to leave the property. That was not what Detty wanted. 

Fuggs told Detty that Cliff was crazy but that he wasn’t a danger to himself, so they weren’t going to take him in. What followed was what Detty calls a “tongue-lashing” from the officer “about how this whole thing is my fault for not giving him tough love and letting him move in with me.”

“I said ‘For four years, I’ve been making that kid sleep in ditches, behind buildings, in cars, dumpster-dive for food,” Detty said. “How much tougher do you want me to get? Do you want me to go upstairs to get my gun to shoot him?”

At first, Detty says he thought the officer needed more training on how to handle people like Cliff. “Then I thought maybe I have been handling this wrong,” he said. “I can’t get anyone to help me.”

But the officers left, and Detty was alone, without help, again, and Cliff was back on the streets.

“I never saw him again before his death,” he said.

Several weeks before, Detty ran into a friend, a Santa Maria police officer, in the parking lot of a local Target. The pair began talking about Cliff, and Detty asked for help. “I told him, if you ever have a situation with Clifford where you think you can call in the mental health people, just do it,” Detty recalled. The officer gave Detty his word that he would.

The same officer was on call when Cliff was seen on April 28, two days after he left his father’s house for the last time. Police had pulled up outside a Santa Maria motel after several business owners had called 9-1-1 to complain about Cliff’s behavior. A shirtless Cliff had kept up motel guests the night before “due to his yelling and disorganized angry speech,” according to medical documents taken when C.A.R.E.S representative Peggy Atwill was called by police to evaluate him just before 3 p.m. Atwill’s report noted that Cliff was hearing voices and disorganized in his speech, so much so that he was “not able to complete more than a simple thought” without lapsing into confusion.

Atwill deemed Cliff “gravely disabled,” a condition in which a person is unable to provide for his basic personal needs for food, clothing or shelter, and Cliff was transported to the emergency room at Marian Medical Center.

Cliff was immediately restrained after he arrived at the hospital at 3:30 p.m. because he was combative and yelling, according to ER reports. A doctor saw him, and examination reports taken when he was admitted show that Cliff had a normal heart rate, and that other aspects of his physical examination appeared sound. But he was still agitated, and having “significant visual hallucinations, reporting seeing children” while no one was present but the doctor examining him and security personnel.

The doctor reported that Cliff appeared to calm down after being given several doses of anti-psychotic drugs. He was placed under observation, to wait for his placement at the Psychiatric Health Facility in Santa Barbara. Just after 5 p.m., Cliff’s drug results came back; he had tested negative for alcohol, but positive for methamphetamines.

Just a few miles away from the hospital, Detty had been notified that Cliff had been taken in, and would be transported to Aurora Vista del Mar Hospital, an acute-care unit in Ventura. Vista del Mar contracts with the county Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services when there’s no room at the Psychiatric Health Facility in Santa Barbara. Within Santa Barbara County, the PHF is the only place for involuntary patients, who are defined as individuals who present a danger to themselves or others as a result of a mental illness.

After months of trying to get his son attention from mental health experts, it had finally happened.

“I was happy,” said Detty, who even cranked up the barbecue to celebrate. “I went to bed early. I said, ‘Tonight, I might get a good night’s sleep.’”

But unbeknown to Detty, things were about to take a disastrous turn.

“I didn’t know that he was still down at Marian and they were having all those problems, and it was 8:30 at night,” Detty said. “I could have been there in five minutes.”

If the hospital staff had called Detty and said they were having a difficult time, he is confident he would have been able to calm his son down.

“I guarantee they wouldn’t have had to keep him in those restraints,” Detty said.

But no call came, and Detty wouldn’t learn the full extent of what would take place that night until early the next morning.

Meanwhile, Cliff’s ordeal at the Psychiatric Health Facility in Santa Barbara had just begun.

Related Stories

» Click here for the second story in Noozhawk’s series on the Cliff Detty case: Seclusion, Restraints and Screams Marked Man’s Final Hours at Psychiatric Unit

» Click here for the third story in Noozhawk’s series: Seclusion and Restraint Practice Poses Risks, Prompts Questions

» Click here for a related commentary: Brian Stettin: Laura’s Law Might Have Saved Cliff Detty

» Click here for a Noozhawk slide show.

» Click here for mental health care resources that are available 24 hours a day.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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