Justice Denied! Mentally Ill Teen Sentenced To Two Life Terms For Crime Others Get 11 Years Maximum

Sana and James Campbell with a family photo of Christopher Sharikas

(9-24-17) Sana Campbell is crying.

She takes a moment to compose herself as she sits across from me at the kitchen table of her Virginian suburban home with her husband James comforting her, but the tears keep flowing.

Sana has reason to cry. Her son, Christopher Sharikas, has spent close to twenty years – that’s right twenty years –  in prison for a crime that the state’s own voluntary guidelines called for a seven to a maximum eleven years term.

Instead, Christopher Sharikas was sentenced to two life sentences, plus five years, plus twenty more years.

What did Christopher Sharikas do to deserve such a harsh sentence?

He hijacked a car and stabbed its driver once. I’m not minimizing the crime. It was awful. But let’s dig deeper. Christopher was seventeen. That’s right, he was a teenager.

He also had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was taking a car because voices were telling him to get to New York City.

“He is the kind of person who makes us feel unsafe,” the assistant commonwealth prosecutor in Arlington was quoted in The Washington Post in a 1998 news account about Christopher’s sentencing.

National studies have found that individuals with mental disorders spend four to seven times longer in jails and prisons than others charged with exactly the same crimes.

But I have never heard of a case as extreme as this one. Two life sentences, plus additional time, for an offense that ordinarily carries an eleven year maximum sentence!

Wait, there’s more.

According to the 1998 newspaper account, then-Arlington Circuit Court Judge Paul F. Sheridan decided to “throw the book” at Christopher Sharikas because Judge Sheridan had become angry at the young defendant.

In November 1997, Christopher had agreed to plead guilty to the carjacking and stabbing but when he appeared before Judge Sheridan for sentencing the following April, Sharikas denied committing the crime.

Remember, Christopher had paranoid schizophrenia, a delusional disorder. He also smirked.

“That is so insulting to the victim!” Judge Sheridan snapped angrily, rejecting a defense attorney’s plea that Sharikas be sent to a mental health facility rather than jail.

Wait, there’s still more. At the time, the carjacking victim worked as an intern in the prosecutor’s office and she was dating an Arlington Police Detective.

Could it be that those two factors also played a role in the harsh sentence?

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NAACP Gives Fairfax Officials High Marks For Jail Diversion, But Notes Inequities About Police Force Against Minorities

20170921_192918_resized(9-22-17) The Fairfax County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has issued its first-ever “report card” that grades the performance of  Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors , Sheriff Stacey Kincaid, and Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr.

The report judged each official on five subjects: use of force by law enforcement, support for increased diversity, support for civilian oversight/accountability of the police, support of incarceration alternatives, and minority community outreach. 

While the NAACP generally praised Chief Roessler, it noted that 2015 police data shows that 47% of police ‘use of force’ in Fairfax County involved African Americans and that 33% of jail inmates are black even though the African American population in the county is roughly 8%.  It reported that 15% of the police force is composed of minority officers. The report found those disportionate percentages troubling.

Here’s the grades that the NAACP handed out:

A grades: None

B grades:  Chairman Sharon Bulova, Chief Roessler, and Supervisor Catherine Hudgins, who is the only African American on the board.

C-plus grades: Supervisor John Cook, Sheriff Kincaid, Supervisor Dan Storck.

C grades:  Supervisors: John Foust, Jeffrey McKay, Linda Smyth.

D plus grades: Supervisors Penelope A. Gross

D grades: Supervisors Pat Herrity, Kathy Smith.

Much of the grading was based on how each official has supported and helped implement recommendations that came from an Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission, on which I served.

This commission was created by Board Chairman Bulova to study police use of force, civilian oversight of police, treatment of persons with mental illnesses, and police diversity, the NAACP noted.

Of those issues, the NAACP said the county had done the best job implementing jail diversion of individuals with mental disorders.

Overall, however, the NAACP noted that “With a few exceptions, most county officials need to do a better job engaging with minority groups to better understand their collective concerns.”

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Hollywood’s Ryan Murphy: Champion In TV’s “Glee” For Diversity And Underdogs Appears Ready To Stigmatize Mental Health Care Workers

2014 PGA Awards Co-Chairs Ryan Murphy, left, and Todd Black speak on stage at the 26th Annual Producers Guild Awards at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on Saturday, January 24, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo by John Shearer/Invision for Producers Guild of America/AP Images)

(9-18-17)  Is the writer and director who brought us the groundbreaking television show GLEE about to produce two seasons of a show for Netflix that will stigmatize Americans with mental illnesses and demonize those who help them?

That appears to be the case based on a news release sent to me by Laura Pogliano, an advocate who has written about her own son’s death.

Director  “Ryan Murphy apparently loves spooky-ass mental institutions,” the story declares as an explanation for why Murphy is bringing back Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Titled Ratched, the series will “follow the Big Nurse’s murderous progression through the mental health care system” as she evolves from “nurse to full-fledged monster.”

What that means is a television series that will portray nurses and doctors in psychiatric facilities as being cold-blooded sociopaths eager to brutalize and terrorize patients, many of whom aren’t really sick.

Surely, Mr. Murphy, who has announced publicly that he is gay, knows how harmful stereotypes can be, especially ones perpetuated by Hollywood.

Certainly, Mr. Murphy, who has been justifiably praised for launching a social justice program aimed at bettering the lives of minorities, must be aware of how many of the most dehumanized and ridiculed members of our society are those with mental illnesses and substance disorders who can’t get help because medical professionals either don’t want to work with them or can’t earn enough from insurance companies  to practice their trade.

That being the case, perhaps Mr. Murphy can explain how his moral sensibilities and social conscience fit with a television series that will portray psychiatric facilities and those who work in them so negatively.

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Mental Illness Champion Sen. Pete Domenici Dies: Shocked Senate By Talking Publicly About His Family’s Struggles

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(9-14-17-17)

“Clare was a very marvelous gifted athlete,” he said. ”In her best year in high school, she was district champion in tennis; she was a catcher on the baseball team; she was an absolutely outstanding guard on the basketball team.” During her freshman year at Wake Forest in North Carolina, however, Clare started to lose her zest, growing ”fuzzy” and inordinately indecisive. She would call home frequently for guidance on simple issues, ”like what kind of potato to have…She was all out of whack. Then my wife, Nancy, went down there to help her and ended up bringing Clare back home. That’s when things got really out of hand. Her temperament totally changed. She became angry, mean. Throwing things at mirrors. Cussing, swearing. Crying, shrinking into a shell, taking to her bed. And that started two novice parents down the strange path of having to believe something we didn’t want to believe. And to really believe it, to acknowledge that Clare was mentally ill, took a long time.”

Those words were spoken by former U.S. Senator Pete Domenici who died yesterday at age 85 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He disclosed his family’s struggles in a New York Times article (reprinted below) that was a shocker when it appeared in 2002 – a time when most politicians were afraid to publicly discuss mental illness and substance abuse in their own families. He later told me the story came with a personal cost because it had upset his daughter.  Yet, it was his frankness in describing his frustration and family’s plight that showed mental illnesses can impact any family and it was his brutal honesty that helped persuade his colleagues to pass the landmark Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA). It was written to close loopholes that enabled insurance companies and health care providers to discriminate against Americans with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems by treating those issues differently from other health problems.

The New York Times quoted Andrew Sperling, legislative director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in 2002 stating that Domenici played a singular role precisely because he was perceived as an unlikely advocate until after he told his family’s story.

‘If the parity legislation had come along as a  Kennedy-Wellstone initiative, it would never have been taken seriously in the Senate. Democrats come up with mandates on health insurance every day. But when a senior Republican senator with a fairly conservative voting record comes forward and says that in this instance the federal government has a responsibility to set a standard on the marketplace — it has the flavor of a Nixon in China.”

Sen. Domenici, along with his wife, Nancy, were strong supporters of NAMI whose CEO, Mary Giliberti, issued a statement yesterday that I am posting along with Domenici’s family story as told in the New York Times.

His death is a tremendous loss to Americans who have a mental illness or substance abuse issues or love someone who does. ( Sen. Wellstone died at age 58 in an airplane crash.)

(In other political news, supporters of Assisted Outpatient Treatment are trying to understand this morning why the House voted down an amendment introduced last night by Rep. Tim Murphy (R. Pa.) that would have added $5 million extra to fund Assistant Outpatient Treatment pilot programs. The amendment lost by a vote of 198 vs 219 (see your representative’s vote here) even though Congress last year had authorized $15 million for the same programs. The federal government has ruled that court ordered treatment is an “evidence based” practice that benefits the seriously mentally ill, but it still continues to be opposed by many consumer groups and legislators who fear expanding judge ordered treatment will require communities to provide supportive services (housing, job support, etc.) that are expensive. Five other mental health amendments Murphy introduced were approved. They included:  Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Promotion, Intervention and Treatment- $5 million; Increasing Access to Pediatric Mental Health Care – $9 million; Strengthening the Mental and Substance Use Disorders Workforce- $10 million; National Mental Health and Substance Abuse Policy Lab – $5 million; Strengthening Community Crisis Response Systems – $10 million.)

NAMI Mourns The Loss Of Senator Pete Domenici

ARLINGTON, Va., September 13, 2017 – NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is saddened to hear the news that former-Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico has passed away. Senator Domenici served in the U.S. Senate for 35 years. Along with his wife Nancy, the senator worked tirelessly to educate his colleagues about mental illness and the need to improve mental health services and supports.

NAMI Chief Executive Officer Mary Giliberti expressed her heartfelt sorrow to Mrs. Domenici and the entire Domenici family: “Today, we mourn the loss of one of our staunchest allies. Senator Domenici has been a longtime advocate fighting for equal treatment for mental illness. He leaves behind a legacy in Congress on behalf of people with mental illness and their families that will never be forgotten. NAMI offers our deepest condolences to Nancy and their family.”

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New Mental Health Czar Faces Huge Challenges In Focusing SAMHSA On Serious Mental Illnesses

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New Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse is sworn in by Secretary Tom Price while her husband holds bible.

9-14-17) Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, who was sworn in earlier this week as our nation’s first Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse, is going to need a tremendous amount of support from families and mental health advocates if she is to change the course of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a federal agency with a budget of about $3.6 billion a year, most of it dispensed in grants to help states pay for mental health and addiction treatment.

Reforming SAMHSA is the mandate that both Congress and the White House have given her, but the road to accomplishing that is filled with minefields.

She is taking charge at a time when SAMHSA has been under intense fire voiced during congressional hearings held by Rep. Tim Murphy’s (R.-Pa.) leading up to passage of the law during the Obama administration that created Dr. McCance-Katz’s new job.

But Rep. Murphy’s harsh critique was hardly the only voice clamoring for change.

For years, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey has lashed out against SAMHSA. Among his criticism: that SAMHSA failed to employe a single psychiatrist, funded groups that were outspokenly anti-psychiatry and anti-medication, and issued a three year planning document that was 41,804 words in length but didn’t include a single mention of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, autism or obsessive disorder. Instead, he said, SAMHSA frittered away millions on feel good programs for the worried well. As an example, Rep. Murphy and Dr. Torrey cited SAMHSA’s funding of an “Unleash the Beast” program that promised to help attendees learn about mental illness by studying animal movements.

Even SAMHSA’s own employees were unhappy. A 2015 study by a non-partisan watchdog group ranked SAMHSA at 317 out of 320 federal agencies when it came to employee job satisfaction.

Among the SAMHSA’s harshest critics was Dr. McCance-Katz herself.

In an earlier incarnation, Dr. McCance-Katz served as SAMHSA’s first chief medical officer but left after only two years. Once out the door, she blew the whistle on SAMSHA, writing in an April 2016 Psychiatric Times article that at SAMHSA:

 There is a perceptible hostility toward psychiatric medicine: a resistance to addressing the treatment needs of those with serious mental illness and a questioning by some at SAMHSA as to whether mental disorders even exist—for example, is psychosis just a “different way of thinking for some experiencing stress?”

All of which, now begs a question that needs to be answered.

Changing the top leader at a federal agency doesn’t change the career employees who have been sailing the ship for the past decade.

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A BIT TOO MUCH ABOUT ME: New York Show Explores Creative Bipolar Mind – And How A Social Worker Helped My Family

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(9-12-17) My good friend, Steve Weiss, recently asked if I would help publicize A BIT TOO MUCH ABOUT ME, a performance by Zac Sandler. The show is being performed this coming Friday, September 15th, beginning at 7 p.m. at The Triad Theater,  158 W 72nd Street, New York City. (It also will be live streamed, details below.) If you live in the New York area or happen to find yourself in Manhattan, please check it out.
What’s the show about?

“Welcome to what’s inside Zak’s head.  From the piano, Zak narrates his experience with a serious mental condition as it progresses from out-of-control to chaotic, to in-control and harmonious, while he strives to navigate his relationships and his writing career.  Joining Zak is a group of actors who play younger Zak, his exes, and the parts of his brain that come out during his mental episodes.”

I am especially pleased to be plugging this performance.

My friend, Steve Weiss, whose recommending the show, has been someone who has unselfishly helped my family numerous times during crises.

HOW STEVE WEISS HELPED MY SON WHEN THE POLICE WERE CALLED

After my book was published, Kevin stopped taking his medication. I called a mobile crisis response team and explained that I was concerned because I could see Kevin was beginning to slip into psychosis.

Is he dangerous?” the dispatcher asked me.

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