AUSTIN (KXAN) — Teresita Gonzales sends her son pictures whenever she can.
Photos of streets he’s driven countless times, landmarks, a favorite pier in Corpus Christi and the sun peeking through the clouds over the water.
“Corpus Christi is the place where he was born,” explained Gonzales. “I use those pictures to see if I could help him to remember me in a place where he used to love to go to and also to show him how it had changed, because he has not seen the outside of those four walls for such a long time.”
She sends the photos to jail where her son has been waiting for transfer to a state hospital for mental competency restoration treatment, so he can eventually stand trial.
The mother from the Dallas area said her son suffers from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression. She didn’t want to share his name, because she’s worried about his case.
“You don’t sleep at night … your mind is going 150 miles an hour as a mother wanting to know what else can I do besides pray,” Gonzales said emotionally.
In 2017, the 40-year-old was charged with three counts of aggravated assault against a public servant and deadly conduct after discharging a firearm.
“He did not hurt anyone. He didn’t hurt himself,” said Gonzales. “He was out with a weapon shooting in the air, not at people … never pointed directly at an individual. He was seeing things in his mind.”
Gonzales explained he was sent once to the state hospital a year and half after his arrest, and he was restored but decompensated after coming back to jail.
She explained one of the greatest failures has been the lack of continuity of care in jail. She said, from the time of his arrest to now, he went from jail to a state hospital and then back to jail – and eventually the waitlist again.
This most recent time he’s been waiting on the list since 2020. Gonzales explained he was getting ready to be moved out of a Dallas County jail, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“They keep telling me … he has an order to go. There is an order by the judge … to leave when a bed is available at the state hospital,” Gonzales explained.
Texas is hiring
The state committee tasked with oversight of the waitlist said in a recent meeting staffing shortages during the pandemic are why the waitlist is growing.
The latest state hospital waitlist number hit a record of more than 2,100 people late last month.
“When you have 600-plus beds that are offline, then it just becomes more of a challenge for us to take people, because we don’t have the capacity,” Scott Schalchlin, a Texas Health and Human Services Commission deputy executive commissioner, said during the Joint Committee on Access and Forensic Services meeting. “In January of 2020 from there to now, we are down about 1,200 staff. You’re looking at a large number of vacancies.”
Schalchlin said HHSC is now offering hiring bonuses for certain health care positions at state supported living centers and state hospitals across Texas. The hiring bonuses are $5,000 for new registered nurses, $3,500 for licensed vocational nurses and $2,500 for psychiatric nursing assistants.
“These work environments aren’t always top of mind for nurses, they often think about hospitals. And yet these settings care for some of the most vulnerable populations, and really need competent nurses who have a particular skill set to care for individuals who are in the settings,” said Dr. Cindy Zolnierek, CEO of the Texas Nurses Association. “I am a psychiatric nurse by background, and I can tell you it’s a tremendously rewarding profession. It is a different population, one we don’t often think about, and if a nurse is ready for a change rather than leaving the profession, I think it’s a great opportunity to consider one of these other sites.”
Zolnierek explained turnover rates are 25-30% right now, and experienced nurses are retiring, taking breaks or choosing temporary travel assignments.
“We know that nurses are directly related to outcomes,” she said. “So what happens when people don’t get the care, they don’t progress.”
The state is also looking into other solutions, including increasing salaries to keep current staff and offering flexible work hours.
Impact on families
“We just need people to get hired in the right places,” said Gonzales.
Until then, she said she’s doing everything she can to make sure her son doesn’t forget happier times. Gonzales explained the heartache of watching her son live with mental illness and wait to get help is unbearable.
“Until you have been there, you won’t know the pain and the suffering… not only on you, but as I speak to you, my grandchildren… see this… my daughter, my son,” said Gonzales as she wiped her tears. “You don’t know what that long list is doing to others — what impact it has on us.”
She said she’d keep sending photos and shared a few of her favorites including one of of his cat and his recording studio.
“The one picture at his recording studio is the place where he spent most of his time creating music. He also enjoyed playing the piano. He used to do some recitals when asked by other piano musicians,” Gonzales explained. “During all this time, he was on the correct care and medications. He was living a normal life.”
The story is part of the KXAN investigation, “Mental Competency Consequences,” a project supported by the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.