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Miami woman couldn't get mental health care for son before he was charged with gruesome crime

David Ovalle, Miami Herald on

Published in Health & Fitness

MIAMI -- For more than a decade, Della Wright repeatedly turned to police and civil courts to quell her son's violent outbursts, which were fueled by drugs and severe schizophrenia.

A judge forced Jerome Wright into daily therapy. He stopped going. When Jerome wrecked their house, cops forced him into repeated stays at psychiatric crisis units. Each time he returned, he stopped taking medications and disappeared into the bedroom for weeks.

Then, last fall, came the nightmarish conclusion. Miami-Dade police found the body of Jerome's girlfriend rotting inside his bedroom closet, her belly ripped apart, her organs stuffed in a trash can outside. He told them he thought the corpse was a "blow-up doll" made of human flesh.

Della Wright's struggles over nearly two decades demonstrate what experts say is a tragic reality in Florida: There are few resources for families, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, to get help in dealing with mentally ill relatives. Wright, 62, is a single retired security guard who lives on $951 a month in government assistance, can no longer drive and is nearly blind.

"My son started to deteriorate really bad last year," Wright said. "He wouldn't shave. He wouldn't take a bath. He started urinating in his room. I just did not know what to do. I didn't know where to turn. My son needed professional help on a daily basis, and I couldn't provide that for him. I tried."

After the gruesome crime, she remains determined to be his protector. Even as her son was jailed, Wright this month grabbed her dog-eared bible, hobbled to the bus stop and traveled downtown to court. She persuaded a civil judge to lift a restraining order against Jerome that she had previously sought to protect herself.

 

"I want to be his mother," Wright told the judge. "He needs me right now. And I need him."

The violent turn in Jerome Wright's case is extreme but the inability of a poor family to find help or mental treatment isn't unusual.

The Florida Department of Children and Families estimates that there nearly 800,000 adults with serious mental illness in the state. The Miami-Dade court system has estimated that 9.1 percent of the county's population has experienced serious mental illnesses, with few getting long-lasting help through the public health system.

In the fiscal year ending in 2016, over 190,000 people in Florida were sent to psychiatric hospitals under Florida's Baker Act, which allows police or medical personnel to involuntarily commit someone for up to 72 hours if they are a danger to themselves or others. That's a number that has more than doubled over the past 15 years.

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