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Neglect of Mentally Ill Leads to Violence

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Sujatha Guduru

Sujatha Guduru of Oviedo had a 20-year history of mental illness. She had required hospitalization in a psychiatric ward three times, was seeing a mental-health counselor and taking psychotropic drugs. Yet Guduru was still able to walk into a local gun shop and buy a revolver.

Six days later, that gun was used to kill her 17-year-old daughter before Guduru turned the gun on herself in a failed suicide attempt, the Orlando Sentinel reports. 

Guduru’s attorney, Brian Bieber, said that with her well-documented long history of mental illness, Guduru should not have been able to buy a gun.  “...[T]he system in Florida (regarding guns and mental illness) and, frankly, across the country, is unequivocally broken,” Bieber said.

Despite the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut in December 2012, in which 20 children and six adults were killed, there have not been any major federal or Florida gun laws enacted to keep  guns away from the seriously mentally ill.

The state law is so narrowly written that only a small fraction of residents with serious mental illnesses are barred from buying guns. It is not clear whether Guduru fell into that group.

Last weekend in Miami, a whole family was caught up in a melee when Twyla Richardson  called police to say her 21-year-old son Jawaan Wilcox had been off his schizophrenia medication for two weeks and was out of control. As the Miami Herald reported (paywall alert), Richardson requested that Miami Police Department send officers trained in crisis intervention, in de-escalating situations involving substance abuse or mental illness. Miami PD has 90 to 100 sworn officers who have gone through crisis intervention training.

But of the two dozen police officers who came to the house, the Herald reports, only one had had such training, and it isn’t clear whether that officer was an early arriver. In the struggle to take Wilcox into custody, his brother and two sisters were arrested. Wilcox was taken to the hospital. Richardson said the situation could have been handled better.

While many cities and counties have services for the homeless, mentally ill, and those with addiction issues, there are still those who choose not to accept treatment, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.  Sarasota County is considering adopting a model from San Antonio, Texas, that allows homeless people who do not wish to participate in case management to sleep on mats in one courtyard.  Those spending the night there would be screened for alcohol, drugs and weapons, none of which are allowed.  Sarasota’s goal would be to have them at a shelter all day where they would “ case management.”

Finally, a federal jury has awarded $975,000 to the estate of a mentally ill woman who died after being found unresponsive in her Pinellas County Jail cell.  Jennifer DeGraw’s husband had called police on March 16, 2009, stating that she had not taken her medication for bipolar disorder and that she was acting out, the Tampa Tribune reports.  Deputies had originally planned to use Florida’s Baker Act to take her to a mental health center, but after DeGraw resisted, she was subdued with a stun gun and taken to jail, where she was found unresponsive eight days later.   The jury decided jail personnel did not follow protocol after being told that DeGraw needed close medical observation.  

Originally founded in December 2006 as an independent grassroots publication dedicated to coverage of health issues in Florida, Health News Florida was acquired by WUSF Public Media in September 2012.