Mark Rippee of Vacaville, California, has entered what may be the final struggle for his catastrophic life. His survival prospects are not good.
Most readers of this blog know about Mark’s grotesque misfortunes that span thirty-three years. And about the shocking indifference to them among the social services and the members of the Solano County Board of Supervisors. To refresh your memory, click on this blog link to read my previous posts.
Mark was released from a Vacaville hospital on October 26. He had spent two hundred fifty-eight days there, the longest respite of his tortured life since June 1987, when a motorcycle crash left him blinded, his body shattered, parts of his brain exposed, and his mind vulnerable to the schizophrenia that soon struck him. He’d been hospitalized after being struck by a car for a second time while wandering sightlessly around the town.
No agency in the city, the county, or the state of California cares about Mark Rippee. The attached links detail how his sisters Linda Privatte and Catherine Hanson, both women in their 60s with major illnesses themselves, have tried in vain to obtain conservatorship over him and to find a secure place for him to live. The care agencies and political bodies enfold themselves in narrow interpretations of law and policy. The sisters believe that in fact some laws meant to protect people such as Mark have been violated, with no one inclined to enforce them.
The family has been helped, materially and spiritually, by a growing army of concerned friends and Vacaville citizens. The sisters have posted a call for blankets, food, medium-sized long-johns and lined sweatpants, beanies, deodorant, lotion, hand sanitizer, baby wipes, a coat, gloves, socks. And water. Always water.
To simply read this sad list is to recoil at the scale of difference between Mark Rippee’s plight and the stony disdain—the contempt—of the agencies and the political structure designed to help him.
The charity now arriving is a godsend, and a tribute to the humanity of Vacaville’s private citizens. Yet it is not enough to assure this broken man’s survival. Mark, now 57, remains vulnerable to winter’s ravages, to further collisions with cars and trucks, and—most threateningly—to his environment’s rising Coronavirus rate. Solano County has entered tier 2, the “red” tier, which signals a “substantial” level of infection.
No one tells Mark’s story with more passion and clarity than Linda and Catherine, who have told it to deaf ears for three decades. Their stories and updated reports are linked below.
Today is a dark day. Mark was discharged from the Acute Care hospital after 258 days of healing from his injuries after being struck by a car for the second time in the last year. He was taken by the facility’s van back to the streets of Vacaville. He left with only a cane, duffle bag, boots, and 2 sets of clothes. They gave him 1-2 months worth of medications but would not confirm what they were. I don’t know how he will know what he is taking or when it is time. He has been on increased Anti-psychotic meds recently and I do not know if he will be on the streets. His new Social Worker is with Solano APS and is the same one who did the “Snapshot Assessment” of Mark and declared him “Not Conservable.” He was planning to meet Mark on the streets of Vacaville to “Receive” him back to town. When we called the facility this morning to check on when he was to be released and how… he was already gone. The nurse claimed, “Oh he is not going back to the streets, but is going to the Vacaville county building!” I started explaining that he is going back to the streets! That is where he has lived on the streets for years! I have 2 people trying to help with getting him a new ID. The facility could not confirm if he even had a blanket. He was supposed to get a flu shot before leaving – he didn’t. We have already put together many things he will need, but with a bad leg and a shoulder that doesn’t work, it will be even more difficult to carry much. He is supposed to still be using a walker – but chose a cane. He will have difficulty social distancing and not touching everything he comes in contact with. They said they gave him a few masks. His discharge was scheduled for 11 am this morning. I tried calling all morning and couldn’t reach him or the Social Worker. It turns out they released him earlier than 11 am, so he was already gone before I could even talk to him. I did not even go to bed last night thinking that tonight Mark will be sleeping on the streets. CJ has been up for two nights bracing herself for his release. His drastic improvement over the last 8 months was not enough proof for the county to comprehend that housing, treatment, and care was exactly what was needed in his case. I am back to taking it day by day to keep him alive. How long before another traffic accident or injury? We know it won’t be long… and we will go back to jumping every time the phone rings.I just received verification from one of our members that he arrived at the Carroll Building in Vacaville and the APS Social Worker was not there! He is now alone and darkness comes.
The voices of the growing grass-roots movement to reform mental healthcare are at last rallying to demand justice for perhaps the most dispossessed victim in America.
In a town in America, here in the Twenty-first century, a man has been left to die. A maimed and blind and deeply mentally ill man.
He has been left to die in this town for thirteen years. Right out in public, on the city streets, where everybody can see him. And beat him and rob him when they feel like it. And nobody with any statutory power over his predicament seems to give a damn.
A technical clarification: this man is not on the streets of Vacaville as I write these words. He is in critical condition in a hospital, bandaged and splinted and broken after being struck by a car at a traffic intersection at dusk on February 12. (It is the second time this man has been hit.)
His injuries include a fractured skull and bleeding from the brain, facial lacerations, lung contusions, a dislocated shoulder, a shattered elbow, a decimated leg, and bruises that blanket his body.
But it’s a safe bet that after the surgeons have him all fixed up—it could take months—he will be ushered back out onto the streets, where the cars he can’t see and the thugs whom he cannot fend off will help him resume his accustomed existence.
The man has a name: (James) Mark Rippee. The city has a name: Vacaville, California. The situation has a name: depraved indifference to the survival of a human being.
I just made that name up. Actually, I borrowed it from legal parlance. Its definition: “Conduct which is so reckless, wanton and deficient and lacking in regard for the lives of others as to warrant the same culpability as the individual who actually commits a crime.”
Here is the crime that Mark Rippee has committed: the crime of existing while crippled, blind, and insane. Are there any questions?
I’m sure there are lots of questions. I have lots of questions myself. Or I used to. I have written so often about Mark Rippee since I became aware of his plight that the words I write about him seem to turn to dust. I have written blog posts about him here and here and here. I have written speeches to mental-health reform groups in which I summarize his story. I have written directly to media outlets, to lawmakers, and to civic leaders in Vacaville and elsewhere. And the streets still claim Mark Rippee.
The bare-bones story—as it were—is that Mark Rippee was involved in a terrible motorcycle crash in June 1987, at age 24, that left him nearly dead, with bits of his brain scattered near the site, his eyes and his right leg destroyed. You can read the details in my links.
Somehow he survived. But over the years, his traumatic brain injury (TBI) has morphed into schizophrenic-like thoughts and behavior. His power to reason vanished. His mother and his twin sisters Linda Privatte and Catherine J. Rippee-Hanson tended him in the family household for eighteen years, until his deformed brain turned him into a raging menace. He left the household and has made his way on the streets, where his sisters—both of whom have developed serious illnesses of their own—bring him food, clothing, canes. Vandals keep stealing all of it, and often also the money given him for food and other needs.
Why doesn’t somebody rescue Mark Rippee? Why doesn’t some agency . . . why doesn’t . . .
Those are very good questions, and I’m glad you asked them. But the answers are buried within the folds of incoherence that comprise so much of the American mental healthcare system. Or systems. Or “systems.”
Mark Rippee is a victim of a perfect storm of gothic bureaucracy. The pertinent bureaucrats at Solano County and California state levels have exhibited no discernible interest in finding any way to counter the bureaucratic snafus with a humane solution that would get this man into supervised care and treatment.
One might even say that they are hiding behind a “humane solution” that actually exists. This solution would begin with a declaration from a psychiatrist that Mark Rippee’s accident left his brain with “diminished capacity.” This ruling would permit Mark’s family to place him in an appropriate facility and/or to establish a conservatorship that would give them discretion over his affairs, including psychiatric care.
No dice: hospital psychiatrists have consistently, and weirdly, denied that Mark Rippee has “diminished capacity.”
And the reasoning behind this confounding denial? Well, it’s none of your business what the reasoning is. The hospital is protecting Mark Rippee’s rights, you see. Protecting them by way of the cartoonish Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. HIPAA was designed to ensure a patient’s “privacy.” “Privacy” that prohibits even family members from learning the medical procedures and condition of a patient. There’s an irony there, in case you missed it.
Catherine and Linda have fought tooth and claw, over parts of three decades, to tear through the self-serving laws and policies that keep Mark in a near-feral state. Two years ago, Catherine plunged into work on a petition in support of a California bill known as AB 1971. AB 1971 would have expanded the existing definition of “gravely disabled” to include medical treatment for a patient if the lack of treatment “may result in substantial physical harm or death.” It would have secured treatment for Mark Rippee. Catherine collected 82,000 signatures in favor of the petition.
In April 2018, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, one of several lobbies that oppose conservatorship and deny other needs of the mentally ill, signaled that it disapproved of AB 1971. The California Hospital Association also weighed in on the negative side.
AB 1971’s sponsors pulled the bill.
The sisters’ determination would be the stuff of heroic legend, if we lived in a country that valued heroic legend. In the wake of Mark Rippee’s second brush with death by an oncoming car he couldn’t see, Catherine has released a new petition. It demands intervention from California Governor Gavin Newsom to rectify this travesty of public policy. It reads in part: “While we hold the County of Solano and many officials, departments and agencies responsible for not preventing this second tragedy that we told them would happen – We also demand that the State of California and in particular – Governor Gavin Newsom – whom we have previously attempted to contact – PAY ATTENTION TO THIS SITUATION and ACT accordingly!”
Moreover, thanks to the sisters and the Internet, word of Mark’s ordeal is spreading at the grass-roots level. Activists around the country, alerted to the nightmare, have begun writing letters demanding justice for Mark.
Here are two. Their tone of indignation and urgency is echoed by many more.
From Donna Erickson of Massachusetts:
“Hello, I’m writing to voice my concern, in regard to a homeless individual named James Mark Rippee. As you probably know, he is severely disabled both mentally and physically. Being blind only further complicates his poor condition. The real tragedy here is that none of this is his fault. Severe mental illness is a disease nobody chooses. Many who are afflicted are unaware of how sick they are, because of anosognosia, which is lack of insight, a condition that is a manifestation of the illness itself. It is not his fault that he repeatedly walks into traffic.
“His brain is broken, and he cannot see. Someone in this condition should never have been put on the street. So now he is hospitalized for another accident, resulting in critical injuries, including a skull fracture, brain bleed, and broken bones. He will need many surgeries.
“His family is devastated, because they tried so hard to get him off the streets. But the laws get in the way. This poor man requires a hospital, rehab, and eventually a long-term residential facility. If he is an elopement risk, then there are locked facilities. Mark’s value as a person is no less than any of us on Earth. He has fallen through the cracks of a very broken system.
“How would you feel if this was your family member? Mental illness can strike anyone. He is not a nobody. He is a family member of caring individuals who have tried everything in their power to help. The tragic part is that this all could have been avoided, if only someone had truly cared and listened. Keeping someone on the streets in his condition is disgraceful. And it shouldn’t matter what he says. He is unable to make a rational decision, which is in his best interest, due to his illness.
“The system has failed him, because no one intervened, even though the family had begged and pleaded. I had to voice my concern, because this could have been my son. This could have been anyone’s son, and we need to start taking care of our most vulnerable citizens!”
And from the Maryland advocate Laura Pogliano:
“My friend [Catherine] Hanson and her sister Linda Rippee have been trying to help their brother Mark for 13 years; a motorcycle crash left him with no eyes, a severe brain injury, broken bones all over his body, a metal rod in his leg, and as a result of TBI, schizophrenia. He’s been on the streets for years, being victimized, robbed, beaten and neglected. They’ve been denied help for him over and over by the county they’re in, by hospitals.
“He’s been admitted to, by group homes, by every support service you can think of. He was hit by a car a few months ago and while inpatient, one sister’s medical power of attorney was revoked, and the psychiatrist sided with his delusional raging patient, that he was capable of making his own medical choices and caring for himself (blind and floridly psychotic). He was discharged to a group home and lasted about a week.
“Now, living on the streets, Mark’s been hit by a car again! Only this time, he was thrown into the air and smashed his face against the driver’s windshield. He’s in bad shape, has another brain injury, the leg with the metal rods is shattered, his shoulder is dislocated and he might lose what’s left of his teeth.
“He’s going to need months of hospitals, multiple surgeries, and extended care. And guess what? He’s in the same damned hospital that battled back against his family and discharged him to the streets.
“Mental health care in America. You stand a slight, very slight chance of making it, if you’re healthy enough to ask for help and participate in it. If you’re really, really sick, you’re screwed.”
In a city in America, here in the Twenty-first century, a man has been left to die. But in America, the voices of reclamation are arising to insist on his right to live.