Austin family wants ICE to drop detainer of woman needing mental help

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A 21-year-old woman who was arrested last week during a mental health call is currently being held in the Travis County Correctional Complex, accused of assaulting a public servant during that call. 

The Travis County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement also has requested a detainer to be placed on Tania Silva as well, which would go into effect either when her charges are dismissed or she makes bond. 

On Tuesday morning, Silva’s family and Workers Defense Project held a rally in front of the jail demanding Silva’s release.

They believe her condition could worsen if she is not taken to a facility with 24-hour monitoring. Those at the rally want Silva to be taken for in-patient care and for the ICE hold on her to be dropped. 

“We really trusted police before when they helped her, but this time, instead of receiving the help she really needed they sent her to jail,” explained Pamela Silva, Tania’s sister, as she translated comments from their father into English. 

Pamela explained that her sister attends Austin Community College and had been getting along well managing her medications and mental illness on her own. 

The family says they called EMS to help “stabilize her after she went missing and off medication for a day.” The family says the situation wasn’t handled properly and they’re asking for ICE to drop its hold so they can get her to inpatient psychiatric care.

Pamela Silva explained that her sister hadn’t been able to see a doctor at the correctional facility until Monday to get medication.

“We really need medical attention [for Tania], we don’t care about anything else, really, if they drop the charges or not we don’t mind,” she said, getting emotional talking about her sister.  

“Our worst fear right now is if she is not medicated and needs help and is not in a mental hospital where she needs to be, she may not be able to recover, ever,” Pamela continued, speaking to what doctors have told her family previously about her sister’s condition. 

In particular, her family worries because they have no idea what type of care they could expect for Tania if she were to go into ICE custody. 

According to an arrest affidavit, on July 19 around 7:30 a.m., a mental health officer responded to a home on Edgedale Drive in east Austin.

When the officer arrived, Tania stated she wanted to hurt herself and she wanted to hurt the person next to her as she looked to her left, according to the affidavit. APD later clarified that there was no one next to her at that time, which was one of the signs they saw that Silva was in mental crisis. 

Silva’s mother said that she was aggressive toward men, so the officer in route brought a female officer with him, APD Officer Destiny Winston explained at a press conference.

Winston added that the mental health officer on scene began calling nearby hospitals trying to secure a bed for Silva when they realized she was in mental distress.

During that time, Silva was holding a dog. When another officer asked her to give the dog back to its owner, Silva refused. The two officers noted Silva “began to get agitated” and said that she would not go to the hospital. 

The officers decided to put Silva in handcuffs to “prevent any further escalation.” As they tried to do so, Silva allegedly kicked one officer in the ribs as well as “curled two of her long nails gouging” the officer’s forearm. 

“They decided to arrest Silva for assault on a public servant, because again, she causing him injury and pain,” Winston explained, saying the responding officers then took Silva straight to the Travis County Jail.   

Winston said they tried several de-escalation techniques, such as making Silva more comfortable by bringing in a female officer and explaining to Silva multiple times that they were there to help her.

“The ultimate goal was to give Silva the help that she needs and that’s why the officers were there, unfortunately, it did turn into a violent incident where arrests had to be made,” Winston said. 

Senior Police Officer James Turner explained that it is rare for these mental health calls to turn into violent incidents. He works on APD’s Crisis Intervention Team which is the mental health branch of the department. 

“More often than not our officers are talking people into handcuffs, explaining to them, where they have to be taken,” Turner said.

He also shared some statistics on mental health-related calls APD has responded to in recent years. 

For the past three years on record the department responds to roughly 11,000 of those calls per year, the number of those calls where officers had to use force to detain someone was 1.4 percent in 2014, 1.6 percent in 2015, and 1.4 percent in 2016. 

Turner explained that officers responding to those calls have an end goal of getting the person the help they need, often times taking them to a mental facility.

But they cannot transport them to a mental facility under certain conditions, including if they are under arrest for a felony.

When someone being taken to a mental health facility assaults a police officer, that’s a second-degree felony, which means they have to be taken to jail instead. 

Sheriff Sally Hernandez sent the following statement to KXAN about this case:

Situations like this are heartbreaking and unfortunately, not uncommon. We deal with this issue on a daily basis in our jails as men and women suffering a mental health crisis are arrested and booked instead of being diverted to treatment facilities. A person’s immigration status compounds the matter. This is one of the reasons I continue to oppose SB4. It denies law enforcement the discretion to do the right thing for the right reason.
 
In the Travis County jails, we have a contract psychiatrist from Integral Care and four advanced nurse practitioners offering care and treatment to inmates with mental illness. Additionally, we have over 20 counselors who monitor the mental health status of inmates. While not ideal compared to a hospital setting, we provide conscientious care to inmates with mental health conditions. The transfer of an inmate from our facility to a hospital is a process that rests on the shoulders of many in the judicial system and we’re working diligently together. It’s a mission for us, not just awareness.”

TCSO explained they have no authority to transfer an inmate to a mental health hospital. The judge will decide if the inmate is competent to stand trial.

Additionally, a TCSO spokesperson said that because of Senate Bill 4, they have to honor the ICE detainer request, but also noted that under the sheriff’s old policy that was in effect in 2017, Silva’s ICE detainer would have been declined. 

KXAN reached out to ICE for comment about this story as well, but an ICE spokesperson declined to comment as Silva is not in their custody presently.

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