The lunatic asylums of yore could inflict worse cruelties than any prison, and the mentally ill once commanded such little sympathy that the old Bedlam Hospital in London charged admission so the public could enjoy watching the comical antics of the inmates.
These days an obviously homicidal maniac is left to move freely in our midst until the inevitable bloodbath occurs.
Clearly we have taken humane reform too far. Dakota Theriot needed help, and five people are dead after state authorities did not, or could not, provide it. Anybody who came in contact with him lately could see he was going to lose it one day.
Mental health care is lacking all over the country, but particularly so in Louisiana, yet another legacy of the fiscal disaster that was the Bobby Jindal administration.
The parents of Dakota Theriot were both shot in the head at their home in Ascension Parish autopsy results show, according to Ascension Parish…
Once upon a time Theriot would almost certainly have been locked up. Involuntary confinement does still happen, but only in extreme cases, and by no means always then. The modern way is to leave the likes of Theriot largely to their own devices.
Revulsion over the institutional atrocities of the bad old days spawned legislation during the JFK administration that put many a mental institution out of business and shifted the emphasis to outpatient treatment. Abandoned and dilapidated hospitals in various parts of the country are testimony to what was an enlightened change of policy.
At least it would have been enlightened had enough money been provided to meet the need for psychiatric care. What were called Community Mental Health Centers were unable, or unwilling, to cope with the large numbers of severely disturbed patients who were once consigned to mental hospitals. Lots of them wound up in jail or took up residence under overpasses.
Meanwhile, the libertarian streak in the American body politic asserted itself in calls to “starve the beast” — to force government to downsize by resisting taxation. Americans always have had a healthy suspicion of politicians, and the proposition that an overweening government squanders money is sometimes hard to dispute.
But when government is required to economize, some wheat will inevitably be ditched along with the chaff. Mental health care is high on the list of worthy government services that have been cut back in recent years. Nowhere have the cuts been more savage, or caused more misery and suffering than in Louisiana.
Much of the responsibility falls on Jindal, who kept cutting mental health spending to prove his right-wing chops in a deluded quest for the GOP presidential nomination.
Mental health spending, already well below the national average when he took office, fell by some 30 percent on his watch.
It had been obvious, perhaps for as long as three years before he allegedly murdered five people, that Dakota Theriot was too crazy to be left at large. Even our bare-bones system provides long-term care for the most desperate cases, and Theriot clearly qualified. He is only 21,but has been in constant trouble with the law and has been referred for brief mental evaluation a few times. His father tried to get him admitted for long-term treatment, but had been rejected, he told deputies summoned on one of the occasions Dakota Theriot was threatening harm.
If the father, Keith Theriot, had found a place for his son, maybe he, his wife Elizabeth and three members of the Ernest family would be alive today. When Dakota Theriot started dating Summer Ernest, he moved in with her family. Soon after, he allegedly shot her, her father Billy and her brother Tanner before driving to his parents' home.
Deputies certainly knew the way to their home. Keith Theriot summoned them one night when Dakota was kicking the door in, having recently promised to burn the place down with his parents inside. He had also been having lengthy conversations with himself and, indeed, proceeded to have one in the patrol car on the way to a hospital emergency room.
Shortly before that, according to a police report around the same time, Dakota Theriot was “incoherent” and “hearing voices” when threatening his parents after being released from a mental health clinic. He was crying out to be committed.
Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.