Help eludes father until son ends up behind bars

Joyce Plis

Joyce Plis. (Lauren M. Whaley/CHCF Center for Health Reporting)

This story was originally published in the Modesto Bee.

Joyce Plis, executive director of the Stanislaus County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, attends as many court hearings as she can, advocating on behalf of mentally ill individuals, helping family members navigate the legal system and talking with judges and attorneys on both sides about the individual defendants’ illnesses.

In 2010, she went to bat for the 32-year-old schizophrenic son of Richard Curtis, a 59-year-old construction worker. Curtis said that before he met Plis, he watched his son argue constantly, lose weight, struggle to concentrate, and speak of demons.

Seeing his son’s condition worsen, the elder Curtis went through the phone book, asking various organizations for help. But because his son was uninsured, it seemed to Curtis that everyone he called sent him somewhere else.

By the time he found Plis, Curtis said, his son was already in jail, facing a third strike for battering his son’s mother. The son said he pushed her during a fight. A third strike could mean life in prison.  

“I was too late,” the elder Curtis said. “Things spiraled out of control.”

The younger Curtis said he sat in the county jail for a few months before he eventually arrived at the Atascadero State Mental Hospital. Deputy Frost and various medical personnel were kind to him in the jail, he said, though he felt that certain deputies would mock him and the other mental health inmates.

“I don’t ever want to be like that again,” he said.

Once in the state hospital, the son said his condition stabilized enough that he was able to face charges. He ended up pleading no contest, being spared the possible life sentence, and spending several more months behind bars. Upon his release, he was able to receive medication through the county’s medically indigent program, he said. He said he has been rejected repeatedly from Social Security, which would allow him to qualify for Medi-Cal and more extensive county services.

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