“Mother Watches Helplessly as System Fails Son”
September 30, 2017
Victoria Advocate reporter Jessica Priest has changed the conversation in our community about mental health. This started after she attended a John Jay College of Criminal Justice seminar on the imprisoned mind in May 2015 in New York City.
After she returned, we began an 18-month, multipart series called “Minds That Matter.” This series and our initial community forum on the issue led local law enforcement and our community mental health center to start a project called the Collaborative to improve care in the Victoria area. Naturally, we followed with extensive coverage of this effort as our series progressed.
In April 2017, we published a special section showcasing the entire series in a full run of our newspaper and made extra copies of the important work available to the Gulf Bend Center, our regional provider of behavior health services, and lawmakers still working to provide sufficient funding for the care needed in rural areas. The April 9 installment of the series, “Mentally ill man worse off after acquittal,” told the heartbreaking story of a 27-year-old man with no place to go after being found not guilty of threatening his parents.
All of this work positioned Jessica perfectly to tell the sad story of Tyler Shelton, an 18-year-old mental health patient trapped helplessly in the system the Collaborative had worked to fix. Tyler’s story showed how far our community and Texas have yet to go in providing adequate care for the most vulnerable.
Tyler’s story easily could have been overlooked by a typical reporter. It began with the Victoria County Sheriff’s Office issuing a news release about a jail inmate injuring numerous jailers. Another reporter rewrote the news release for the next day’s paper. After reading comments posted by a woman claiming to be Tyler’s mother, Jessica Priest reached out to her.
The woman had written that her son, Tyler, was mentally ill. The mother was reluctant to talk at first, but Jessica explained her previous mental health reporting and the value of telling Tyler’s story.
Tyler’s family had called the sheriff’s office for help when he went off his medication and trespassed. Instead of getting him treatment, the sheriff’s office arrested him for burglary of a building and jailed him. He spent his 19th birthday in jail and rode out a hurricane behind bars. Then, when he tried to fashion his T-shirt into a noose, he injured himself and the jailers who were trying to take it away from him. For this, he faces more felonies.
Using Texas open records laws, Jessica was able to shed light on how the sheriff’s office handled Tyler’s case – how deputies knew about the young man’s mental illness, how deputies were not certain a burglary ever occurred and how the arresting agency never contacted the local mental health authority about Tyler’s situation.
Jessica’s digging did not stop there.
She asked the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to give her the deputies’ training and educational records in regard to dealing with people who are mentally ill.
Although the Victoria County Sheriff’s Office did not provide all the requested documents pertaining to Tyler, Jessica still managed to craft a detailed story about his plight in the criminal justice system. She also created the special web page, which featured a home video of Tyler performing in the high school talent show and a variety of documents supporting her story.
Using sources, including Tyler’s family, the Gulf Bend Center, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement and the National Alliance on Mental Illness Texas Chapter, Jessica was able to show how the system failed to help the young man.
In a follow-up story Dec. 3, Jessica showed how Tyler, even after finally being declared incompetent, still sat in the Victoria County Jail because no state psychiatric beds were available. We thank you for considering Tyler’s heartbreaking story and Jessica’s “Minds That Matter” series and special section in the category of investigative reporting.
Submitted by Jessica Priest.