April 3, 2005
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WIS - Columbia,SC,USA
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Man charged in girl's murder unfit for trial.
The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) (via Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News); 3/31/2005
Mar. 31--The man accused of fatally beating, whipping and starving 3-year-old Porchia Bennett in 2003 has been found incompetent to proceed with his scheduled trial, a judge announced yesterday.
Jerry Chambers, 33, is charged with first-degree murder and faced a possible death-penalty trial in the slaying of the girl -- which ultimately changed the way the city searches for at-risk children and responds to hotline reports.
For the second time in 18 months, a court-ordered mental-health evaluation determined that Chambers is unfit to stand trial. The trial had been set to start April 11.
Common Pleas Court Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes said yesterday that she committed Chambers to Norristown State Hospital for 60 days of observation and possible treatment. After that, his competence is to be assessed again.
"Mr. Chambers is on -- for lack of a better word -- a psychotropic cocktail" of drugs, Hughes told attorneys in the case.
Chambers has been diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia and low-borderline mental intellect, according to court records. He has also told a judge that he suffers from bipolar disorder, but prosecutors have cautioned that he might be faking mental illness.
During a preliminary hearing in the case in October 2003, Chambers laughed at inappropriate moments and apparently was hearing voices, his attorney Charles P. Mirarchi 3d has said.
Prosecutors will announce at a hearing next week whether they want to proceed to trial in April as scheduled against Porchia's mother, Tiffany Bennett, 29, and the child's aunt, Candace Geiger, 19, who was Chambers' girlfriend.
Bennett allegedly left Porchia and her three other daughters in Chambers' care for several months, when the alleged abuse occurred. Bennett is charged with four counts of endangering the welfare of children and conspiracy.
Geiger is charged with third-degree murder. After her arrest, she allegedly told detectives that she had "smacked" Porchia's face and beaten the child's stomach with a belt in the hours before her death.
Chambers is accused of beating Porchia with a belt and extension cord, then smashing her into a radiator after he caught her watching him having sex with Geiger.
Police summoned to the squalid apartment in the 1700 block of South Fifth Street on Aug. 17, 2003, found Porchia crushed between a mattress and a wall. She was covered with bruises and was not breathing. She was pronounced dead 25 minutes later at Methodist Hospital.
Assistant District Attorney Edward McCann, chief of the homicide unit, said yesterday that prosecutors had not yet decided whether to postpone Bennett's and Geiger's cases so that the trio would stand trial together.
Mirarchi told the judge yesterday that he had not yet decided whether to pursue an insanity defense or argue that Chambers suffered from diminished capacity at the time of the crime.
An insanity defense would suggest that Chambers did not know right from wrong when Porchia was killed. To prove diminished capacity, the defense would have to convince jurors that Chambers is guilty only of third-degree murder because he was unable to form a specific intent to kill.
Hughes said yesterday that she believed portions of the evidence could support either legal theory.
Prosecutors have said that Porchia and her sisters -- ages 4, 6 and 10 at the time -- were tortured both physically and emotionally. At the time Porchia died, her 10-year-old sister had been beaten so severely that both her eyes were swollen shut and her body was covered with welts, investigators said. Chambers is also charged with raping two of the sisters.
Three days before Porchia died, a neighbor called the city's abuse hotline to report that Porchia's 10-year-old sister had severe bruises on her face. Two days later, when a social worker arrived at the apartment, no one answered the door. The social worker left a note and did not contact police. The child died the next afternoon.
Copyright (c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Compromise mental health bill advances.
The State (Columbia, South Carolina) (via Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News); 3/31/2005
Mar. 31--A bill that would require insurance companies to cover treatment for mental illness in South Carolina is a step closer to a full airing in the General Assembly.
After an emotional -- sometimes nasty -- public hearing, the House subcommittee on insurance on Wednesday passed a pared-down version of a Senate bill that offers coverage for nine mental disorders.
Attempts to pass a state law adding mental health coverage to standard insurance policies have failed since 1996.
In a compromise forged Wednesday, insurance coverage for the mentally ill would be limited to a total of 105 days a year. Key lawmakers insisted a cap was the bill's only chance of passage.
In the end, mental health advocates gave in.
"Let's get this bill out, move it on," urged Rep. Robert Leach, R-Greenville. "This is the most important bill we could pass."
Led by the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, strong opposition to the bill surfaced from business leaders, forcing legislators and mental health advocates to spend hours groping for a compromise.
The bill would require insurance coverage for bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, adolescent and childhood depression and several other disorders.
It also directs the S.C. Department of Insurance to calculate how much the new coverage adds to the cost of insurance premiums over time.
Because of a compromise reached two weeks ago in the Senate, the House bill would not offer insurance coverage for alcohol and substance abuse, which touched off more dissent at Wednesday's hearing.
"When you don't treat substance abuse, you pay for it on the medical side," said Bonnie Pate, a representative of S.C. Share, a mental health advocacy group, and S.C. Faces and Voices for Recovery, a new substance abuse advocacy group.
Rep. Skipper Perry, R-Aiken, was the only legislator on the six-man subcommittee to vote against the compromise bill.
"This amendment guts the bill," he said. "You can compromise things out of existence."
Others could not get past the discrimination they said the bill continues to foster against the mentally ill.
"You would never tell somebody with a heart condition, 'You can only go in 10 times a year, and if you make it, fine; if you don't, too bad,'-- " said Joy Jay, executive director of the Mental Health Association of South Carolina.
"We didn't want hard limits on inpatient and out-patient days," said Dave Almeida, executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in South Carolina. "That's not what we came to do, and it's not parity."
Subcommittee chairman Dan Tripp, R-Greenville, who authored the amendment capping treatment, said he absolutely would not support the bill without the caps.
"It will be defeated without this addition," Tripp said.
A study by The State newspaper of 2004 campaign finance reports showed Tripp received more than half of his campaign donations from insurance companies.
His opposition to uncapped coverage for the mentally ill was based on his concern for costs to consumers, he said, not the insurance industry.
"I resent the question."
Copyright (c) 2005, The State, Columbia, S.C.
U. Maryland student discusses prevalence of bipolar disorder
University Wire; 3/30/2005; Ben Block
(The Diamondback) (U-WIRE) COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- During a typical week her freshman year, Meghan Hatfield would get an hour of sleep, spend about $500 on items she couldn't recall purchasing and drink regularly to the point of blacking out.
Those closest to her knew this wasn't normal.
Hatfield's friends confronted her and said she was "going psycho." This criticism led Hatfield to realize she had a problem, swinging her into a deep depression that kept her in bed for weeks. During her sophomore year, the depression intensified and she attempted to take her own life.
After 10 minutes in Washington Adventist Hospital's mental ward, Hatfield diagnosed with a problem becoming increasingly prevalent among college students -- bipolar disorder.
A mental illness caused by chemical imbalances in the brain and marked by irregular manic and depressive episodes, bipolar disorder is more common than many realize, according to Dr. Robert Herman, a staff psychiatrist at the University of Maryland Health Center.
Though the exact causes of the disorder are unknown, its symptoms often peak in the college years, between the ages 15 and 25. Changes in hormones and the stressful college experience -- moving away from home, staying up late at night, responding to academic demands and trying alcohol and drugs -- can trigger the disorder, Herman said.
"There are more and more people being diagnosed with this and getting medicine and going to college and doing OK, but society doesn't always recognize that they're here," Herman said.
Herman estimated at least 1,500 students at the university suffer from some form of bipolar disorder, based on the national average.
Nancy Harris, the associate director of the health center's mental health division, said the health center's psychiatric services are in high demand. Creating further problems, mental health has been understaffed since Director Jerry Kaufman moved to another job in fall 2003 and part-time psychiatrist Marty Colodzin retired at the end of last semester. The health center has brought part-time psychiatrists and therapists to help meet students' overwhelming demands, Harris said.
Beginning April 19, Dr. Marta Hopkinson, a psychiatrist who once worked in Baltimore City's public health system, will fill the void as director of mental health.
"She'll give leadership and help us grow and change and deal with students' needs," Harris said. "Without a director we've been functioning well -- we've had the help of part-time people who have been responsive."
For those dealing with bipolar disorder's symptoms, weekly counseling is necessary to monitor mood swings and prevent suicide. Once patients are stabilized they can wait longer, according to Gail Kalin, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C.
"It's not just quantity [of counseling], it's quality. [Bipolar patients] need counseling, they need education and they need support," Kalin said. "It's easier to see a crisis ahead of time than to clean it up afterwards."
Hatfield said if she had been informed about her disorder and sought out the health center's services earlier, she would not have progressed to the point of attempting suicide.
But many never realize they are suffering.
"When a person is in a manic phase, they are not necessarily aware of being in pain," explained Julie Parsons, clinical social worker at the health center. "In fact, they might be having a lot of fun, they might be getting some relief from the depression." She said those who seek help usually do so in the depressive phase or at a friend's advice.
Hatfield, who moved to the campus from Charleston, W.Va., said the uprooting triggered the episodes of her disorder. While manic, she would seldomly sleep and would have binges of drinking, drugs, shopping and sex.
"I would go spend $100 on Chinese food and not even want it, I wouldn't even eat it ... I just felt like buying it," she said. "At 3 a.m. I would go to my friend's place and not even remember how I got there."
"I have this one thought and it goes over and over in my head," she said. "It can be something like turning in a paper, I can't stop thinking about turning in that paper ... and then you start freaking out." Hatfield said she turned to drugs and alcohol to ease her racing thoughts.
On Nov. 6, Hatfield attempted suicide and her friend called an ambulance. Doctors prescribed lithium and she received drug, alcohol and sex therapy to help ease her addictions and learn what to do when she relapses.
After four to five months of adjusting her medications, Hatfield had to learn to adjust to school work and change her entire social life.
"I had to get away from everything that was the old me, that's why I feel horrible because I had to get up and leave my old friends," she said.
Hatfield met other people through the Catholic Student Center and College Republicans. She is now the Life Sciences legislator for the Student Government Association and on the student panel of Active Minds on Campus, a student-led mental health awareness, education and advocacy group.
Looking back on her recovery, Hatfield prides herself on her ability to exist with bipolar disorder.
"If you have a heart condition, you're not going to be ashamed of that. I have a brain condition, and I'm not going to be ashamed," she said. "Some people chose to [hide] because they don't want that to be what defines them, but I kind of like being defined as that because it shows how much I have accomplished. Look how much I've gone through and I'm still doing OK."
With Active Minds on Campus, Hatfield has spoken to UNIV and Gemstone classes, helped with resident assistant training and is working to get a suicide-help hotline placed in every dorm room.
"If we can help one or two people on campus not get as bad as I did or as someone we know did, then we know we did our job," she said.
Besides personal therapy, the health center offers several mental health support groups. These groups include support groups for bipolar, led by Herman, depression/anxiety, general psychotherapy and women's support.
"It's really scary for students to join a group ... but it is confidential and people start to really share themselves with one another, it really is beautiful to watch," Parsons said.
(C) 2005 The Diamondback via U-WIRE