PORT HURON (WXYZ) - Last fall, we introduced you to Bill Becker, a 32-year-old father whose life had been crippled by severe mental illness. In October, after seeing our reports on the state’s deeply flawed mental health system, Bill was ordered new treatment that he thought could have his life.
Tonight, we bring you a follow-up story we never thought we’d have to tell. Five months since Bill Becker’s life was supposed to turn around, he was found dead. His family blames an overtaxed and inept mental health system that failed to intervene when Bill cried out for help.
To help you understand this story’s devastating end, you need to understand how it began, only a few months ago.
A tortured life
When Becker first spoke with Channel 7 in September, he described a tortured life, having been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. Becker struggled with hearing voices that weren't really there. He was afraid to leave his house. Several times, he tried to kill himself.
FOLLOW OUR COMPLETE INVESTIGATION: WAITING FOR DISASTER
"You kind of tend to hear things and believe things don’t, you know, people are out to get you," Becker said
"When it's at its worst, what's it like?" asked Channel 7's Ross Jones.
"It’s bad. Usually most of the time I can’t even remember what’s going on, and I turned to self-medication. I either start drinking heavily or something in that realm. Usually it’s drinking. It gets pretty bad."
Reason for hope
But if you’d been in St. Clair County court last October, you would have seen Bill Becker do something his family says he almost never did anymore: smile. After fighting a losing battle with mental illness, Bill thought he’d finally gained the upper hand.
"I’m actually really satisfied," Becker said. "I think it’s going to work this time."
Under a special order, Becker was to receive assisted outpatient treatment, also known as Kevin's Law, through St. Clair County Community Mental Health (CMH). It was supposed to close the gaps in the treatment he had been receiving by assuring that he attended therapy, took the necessary medication and stayed on track. The treatment was also designed to help Bill stop self-medicating, a common practice among those suffering from a mental illness.
It would be overseen by the court and if Bill didn’t follow it, the judge would be told immediately so authorities could take action.
But for all the good intentions we saw in Just John Tomlinson's courtroom last October in practice, almost nothing worked as it should have. Bill couldn’t stay on track. When he got worse, his caseworkers repeatedly failed to intervene. And Judge Tomlinson did almost nothing at all.
Within the first month of his care, Bill’s spiral began: records show that he tried twice to kill himself, once with pills and later by hanging. Weeks later, he told CMH that he’d started drinking again, mixing vodka and pills. And then, Bill began to miss some of those court-ordered appointments. The first on December 12, then again on the 16th.
By missing appointments, Becker was out of compliance with his court-ordered treatment.
Mark Reinstein is the former CEO of the Mental Health Association in Michigan who helped write Kevin’s Law more than 10 years ago. When Bill started missing those appointments, he says, CMH was legally obligated to alert the judge.
"I would have been notifying the court right then and there, we have non-compliance here," Reinstein said.
But the court wasn't notified then, and not after Bill Becker skipped 4 of his next 5 meetings, either. Around the same time, his mom said his condition was getting worse.
"When I asked them at CMH, what do I have to do? They said it’s up to Bill," recalled Gloria Bertrand. "How can someone in psychosis make a decision on their mental health care? How?"
It wasn’t until January 2, when Bill skipped his eighth appointment, that CMH ever notified the judge. Bill’s case manager sent this letter, asking Judge Tomlinson “how to proceed.” The judge didn’t even see it until a full-week later. By then, Bill had missed two more appointments.
Judge Tomlinson could have ordered that Bill be brought in to meet with health officials, or even be hospitalized. He did neither. Instead, both he and Bill’s caseworker agreed they’d take no action as long as Becker made his next appointment. He did.
But by then, Becker had gotten worse. Records show he told a doctor that he’d been “drinking continuously over the last week” and “wishing he was dead.”
"I might end up drinking again"
Becker was supposed to attend more therapy sessions on January 23rd, 29th and 30th. He missed them all. During that same time period, Becker admitted himself to the hospital three times.
"He was checking himself into hospitals to get well, he was telling them that he felt he wanted to harm himself," Bertrand said. "No one listened."
On the day he was discharged, according to medical records, Becker told a social worker: “I might end up drinking again, drinking is a big issue for me.” She reported giving him a card with the phone number to a crisis line if he needed help. Still, in his case file, she wrote that Becker reported being “content with his services.”
Two days later, he was dead.
"I let go of his hand and I lost him," Bertrand said. "I didn’t help him. The system didn’t help him."
Bill’s tortured life ended at his home in Port Huron. His body was discovered by his mother and, right next to it, police found pill bottles and an empty fifth of vodka. The coroner ruled that Bill died from excessive amounts of alcohol combined with underlying heart disease. His blood alcohol content when he died: .384.
"There is reason to wonder if he would still be alive, if everything had worked the way it should," said Mark Reinstein.
The end for Bill, his wait for disaster, came four months and 10 days since his plea for help.
"It shouldn’t have happened," said Becker's mother. "It shouldn’t have happened. I failed him, the system failed him. Our government is allowing people to die from mental illness."
St. Clair County Community Mental Health declined comment for this story, saying that it would violate privacy laws to talk about Bill’s care. But director Debra Johnson told me by phone that she believes her office did all they could for him.
Right now in Lansing, legislation is being prepared in response to our stories on the failures of Kevin’s Law. The changes are designed to make it more widely used, but state officials say they need to do much more than just that. Mental health providers need to better understand how Kevin’s Law is supposed to work so that men and women like Bill Becker will receive better, more meaningful care.