THE BLOG
07/31/2015 06:30 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2016

Vicky's Story

Shutterstock / albund

My older sister, Vicky, never listened to authority.

One of my earliest childhood memories was around age four, seeing my Mom whip Vicky with a long tree twig to the point she was bleeding. My mother, a frustrated widow raising five girls on meager Social Security benefits in rural southeast Missouri used the only form of discipline she knew -- corporal punishment. As Vicky's 10-year-old old legs, back, and buttocks became covered in red dotted lines, she never cried or moaned. Instead she looked straight ahead, stone-faced. Mom perceived her look as defiance and gave her more lashings than she should have that day. Eventually, Mom gave up and told Vicky to go to her room. Again, Vicky just stood there. After yelling, an exhausted Mom went to her room leaving Vicky standing there staring ahead. Mom, like a lot of mothers in the late 1970s, did not understand that she was not dealing with an unruly child, but a mentally ill one.

Even Vicky's school never understood her behavior. The small country school with a usual graduating class of 20 students did not have the resources to handle a child with Vicky's condition. She was dismissed as being hardheaded or stubborn, but the reason for her actions was various undiagnosed and untreated conduct disorders. The American Psychological Association defines conduct disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as "behavior that violates either the rights of others or major societal norms. It is characterized by disturbances in behavior that causes clinically significant impairment in social, academic, or occupational functioning..." Since academically she was just below average for the small student populace, the school never offered her special education classes. Their solution to handling Vicky's conduct mirrored Mom's punishment, but they used a hard wooden paddle. Being paddled was a part of her daily or at least weekly school life. Mom was continually picking her up from the school because of her disruptions in class. On any given week she would be sitting on the rough wooden bench swinging her feet. Mom would ask her, "Why don't you just straighten up?" Her response, "I don't know... I guess I am just bad." By the time she was an adult, Vicky entered a revolving door in the criminal justice system. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, more than half of all jail and prison inmates have a recent history or symptoms of a mental health problem. An estimated 31 percent of women and 14.5 percent of men in jails have a serious mental illness. Vicky's arrests were mainly for driving while intoxicated. However, her disorder led to other legal problems such as charges for failure to comply with police commands. One of the criteria of her disorders defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) is failure to respond to authority, but Missouri Peace Officer Standard Training (POST) does not require police to be trained in handling persons with mental illness. Police dealt with her the only way they are trained -- by use of force. But this was not the only time her disorders led to her being physically assaulted.

Her romantic relationships were marred by domestic assaults. She was not equipped with proper means to communicate emotions and believed she was somehow deserving of abusive treatment. This led to a pattern of violent relationships. From her late teens to her forties, numerous black eyes, broken bones and a nose broken so many times that reconstructive surgery was required, have been her way of life. In her thirties, she married a man who also suffered from mental illness. Now at 48 years old, after months of suffering hallucinations brought on from a stroke, Vicky has been charged with murdering her husband of 13 years.

Living in a rural area creates potential for Vicky to be victimized again. Stoddard County, Missouri, a rural farming community with a population of little over 30,000 people, where Vicky's case is held, is no exception. In the more than two years she has been incarcerated in county jail awaiting trial, her behavior has led to her hospitalization for broken ribs and at least six trips to solitary while under the supervision of correctional officers who are not required to have any formal academy training. Only a very small number of county jails require the minimum police officer training certification. As a former Chief of Police and now criminal justice educator, I understand the importance of training.

By Missouri Revised State Statute 221.120.1., "If any prisoner confined in the county jail is sick and, in the judgment of the jailer, requires the attention of a physician, dental care, or medicine, the jailer shall procure the necessary medicine, dental care or medical attention necessary or proper to maintain the health of the prisoner." But of the Stoddard County Sheriff's Department $738,237.05 budget, only $1,276.92 was spent on POST training. Although Missouri law gives jailers the power to make life and death decisions, it does not give them the education to make informed decisions. In a state with more than 2,000 drug courts and only five mental health courts, the priorities are clear: limited resources in small Missouri counties are used for drug enforcement, not for treating the underlying causes of addiction. In 2009, Stoddard County commissioners paid $40,000 to employ a drug investigator but only spent $3,583 on a domestic violence fund. Even the Sheriff's canine fund got $1,358; almost triple the amount the mental health board received. Protecting and respecting the needs of the mentally ill is not profitable like the drug arrests that result in state and federal grant money and, thanks to asset forfeiture laws, allow police to keep seized goods.

Vicky may have never listened to authority, but authority only sent her one message -- she only deserved violence.