My second priority was Tom: where was he? The Syracuse Police Department had taken him to CPEP (Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program) and then he had disappeared. No one would tell his wife or siblings where he was.
Now, I know all about HIPAA and privacy and confidentiality. I also know that Tom needed to sign the Social Security papers, deal with the landlord and electric company, and take care of his minor children. Being crazy does not give you the right to avoid your legal responsibilities. Furthermore, no one had any idea if Tom wanted to deal with his responsibilities. Did he even know that his wife, brother and sister were trying to find him?
I know all about toxic families. I spent a total of three years locked up on inpatient psychiatry and I’ve seen every kink in the book—the parents who are trying to control, not help; the siblings who want to place blame, not deal with problems; the children who are looking for money and come with the intention of manipulation. Most people’s emotional problems begin in childhood with the family. I’ve heard crazy-family stories that I won’t repeat because they would make you throw up. I’ve seen “loving” relatives who have been into such guilt, power or shame trips that the patient doesn’t stand a chance of mental recovery as long as any one of these relatives is on the premises. In short, it can be a very good and wise thing for a patient to refuse to see his relatives; he has that right.
The problem is that Tom’s wife and siblings don’t even know if Tom knows they are trying to see him. CPEP is not telling them that Tom doesn’t want to see them; CPEP won’t even tell them where he is. And keep in mind that the last time his brother and sister saw him, Tom didn’t even know his own name. How can CPEP refuse to tell his legally bonded wife where he is?
So I assure Terry that I will make some calls and find out some things. First, I call CPEP and push the button for the administrator. A woman answers and switches me to a phone extension that rings and rings and rings and doesn’t get answered or go to voice mail, so I call back. This time I choose the “manager” option and the call is answered by a voice mail in the billing department. I call a third time, finally get the administrator’s voice mail and leave a message.
Then I go on-line to the Mental Hygiene Legal Service, which is part of the judicial branch of government, not part of the Office of Mental Health. I’ve never found the Mental Hygiene Legal Service to be of any use but I try it anyway. What I find on-line lists the various field offices for the various counties but does not include my county, so I call the main number in Albany and some woman asks me if I want the third department or the fourth department or what?
Huh? I have no idea what she’s talking about, and wouldn’t it be nice if government employees could relate to the real people they are supposed to serve? I tell her I want Onondaga County and she finally decides to pull out a paper book—I can hear her turning the pages—and give me the number of the office about six blocks away from me. I call the number and ask for Mike Hungerford, the director, whom I’ve known for several decades. The woman answering the phone tells me he isn’t in. When I ask when he’ll be back, she doesn’t know. In the olden days, a boss didn’t leave his department without letting someone know where he was going and when he’d be back. It was called being responsible.
So the woman offers to put me through to someone else and I get transferred to another voice mail. I hang up, call back, and ask the woman for a live person to talk to. What I am thinking is “There is a mother who has to go to work to keep from losing her home and two kids with no place to stay tonight and their father is freaking missing! Could we please view this as a problem that needs immediate attention?” Apparently not. The woman tells me that the person to whom she switched me is the person to whom I have to speak and she’s out. So I ask when she’ll be back. The woman says she doesn’t know.
This is the United States government in action: nobody knows anything. So I leave a message then move on to a secret back-door kind of guy who will know how to get the information and because he’s him and I’m me, he might actually do it. Unfortunately, he is not working today.
So next I call Legal Aid of Central New York, explain the nature of the various problems, and get transferred to some special Help line, where I hold for several years before finally giving up and hanging up. There’s an 800-number on-line so I call that and get Jamie, who turns out to be working at—wait for it—Legal Aid of Central New York. I run the short list—father missing in the psychiatric system, minor children at risk, electricity turned off, danger of eviction—and Jamie says “This is not an issue we can help you with.” WTF? Exactly what can they help with if not these things? What about PAIMI—Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness? Legal Aid has a PAIMI attorney. It’s a federal program that provides lawyers to protect and advocate—do we think that maybe, just maybe, that should include giving a mentally ill person the chance to participate in making decisions about his kids? (To be continued)