In April, after seven years of heartache, broken windows, and phone calls from the police, Jennifer and Ron Wilt decided it was finally time to call it quits on a project they had informally dubbed “turn our son into a functional adult.”
By that point it was clear to the Camp Hill, PA couple that Jared Winters, their bipolar 24-year-old, couldn’t survive on his own. Although he was intensely social, his strange and erratic behavior had led to his ouster from every apartment he had ever lived in. And, although he was always eager to work, his child-like naivete and inability to follow instructions had led to his termination from more than a dozen jobs. In addition, he’d racked up five charges for public intoxication, two DUIs, and been homeless twice.
But after the Wilts applied for their son to enter a group home in York County, they faced a problem they didn’t expect: They were told he would be waiting for more than five months.
Only a month after joining the waiting list, despite the couple’s attempt to supervise their son as best they could, Jared Christopher Winters was arrested. Today he remains in jail.
He’s one of the estimated 4,000 inmates in Pennsylvania’s county prison system, or 11 percent of the total, who are seriously mentally ill.
Winters’ story, both his continued incarceration and the struggle of his family to find help before his arrest, illustrates problems faced by thousands of Pennsylvania families each year that try to access the state’s fragmented and underfunded mental health care system.
“I thought I was doing absolutely everything you could possibly do to keep him out of a situation like that,” Jennifer Wilt said, holding back tears. “So to see him in a situation that – I never thought in my life that I’d be learning the legal system like this – it’s just unbelievable to me.”
A Young Man’s Transformation
Winters, like many people with bipolar disorder, developed his condition in his late teens.
Until then, his life had been relatively normal.
Winters’ mother, Jennifer Wilt, separated from Winters’ biological father, J.D. Winters, when their son was three years old. After she married Ron Wilt, Winters grew up in a middle-class home. He would go on to attend Cedar Cliff High School, where he proved to be a gifted soccer player. Ron Wilt still remembers with pride how, in ninth grade, after playing only two games for the junior varsity team, he was promoted to the varsity squad.
“He was a starter every game that season,” Ron Wilt said. “He played on several club teams and he was just extremely good.”
But his senior year took a different turn. Winters suffered a wrist injury that barred him from playing soccer for most of the season. At the same time, he broke up with his girlfriend, lost a pair of close friends, and crashed his car.
As the stress mounted, the Wilts noticed that their son seemed to become a different person. He would spiral into rage at the slightest provocation – punching walls and breaking windows.
There were other symptoms. Winters would go through manic periods where he would spend days awake, playing his guitar in his room, and becoming increasingly delusional as the days wore on. He would descend into hallucinations and paranoia – fearing that his family was trying to poison his food.
The Wilts took their son to a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with bipolar and anxiety disorders. They joined an earlier diagnosis of attention deficit disorder. Medication helped Winters manage his condition but, like most people with a serious mental illness, it was no panacea.
Ultimately, as his behavior became increasingly erratic, the Wilts were forced to take Jared out of school and homeschool him. With the intense help of Jennifer Wilt and a tutor, Winters graduated.
A Struggle For Stability
Now an adult, the Wilts still believed that their son could live an independent, self-sufficient life.
After Winters graduated, Winters’ biological father, J.D. Winters, offered him a job fixing apartments in Chicago. Before that point, J.D. Winters had relatively little contact with his son since the onset of bipolar disorder.
Winters, who worked at a movie theater as a teenager, had always been eager to work and took the job. But in less than a week after he arrived in Chicago, his biological father realized his son was incapable of following instructions. He sent Jared back to Harrisburg.
That pattern would be replicated throughout Winters’ adult life: He would apply for a job, nail the interview, but be fired almost immediately after he started working.
“He just falls apart,” Ron Wilt said. “Usually it’s anxiety-related or people just don’t think he gets it and he’s not catching on – that kind of thing. So he’ll go months between jobs and all of a sudden he’s starting a new job and, ‘OK, here we go again.'”
Winters’ housing situation wasn’t much better than his employment status. He lived at home for two years but the Wilts were eventually forced to move him out.
Winters’ biggest problem is alcohol. The substance is deeply appealing to Winters because it numbs his mind. At the same time, it makes him uncontrollable. Despite declaring their house alcohol-free, Winters would do everything he could to get hold of it.
…The Wilts, still clinging to the belief that their son could live independently under the right conditions, tried to move him into his own apartment. But each time he moved into a new place, he was quickly kicked out.
…Over this period, Winters racked up five charges for public intoxication and two DUIs. He was slapped with fines of $6,000 from the DUIs in York County. The Wilts later reached a deal with the courts that their son could pay off the fines through community service.
A Wait That Turned Tragic
This spring, after Winters was kicked out of yet another apartment, the Wilts finally decided their son needed to be supervised in a group home.
It was an option they had known little about before that point. The couple, like many families navigating the mental health care system for the first time, found it difficult to get clear information about available services.
It was only after Jennifer Wilt connected with a mental health caseworker in Pennsylvania's York County (the Wilts’ Camp Hill home resides just within the edge of York County’s jurisdiction) that she learned about group homes for mentally ill people – known in the mental health field as “Community Residential Rehabilitation” programs.
Even then, the couple didn’t know if they could convince Winters to go into a group home. But they decided to take the risk and began the complex application process.
They immediately discovered that, with only 32 beds among four group homes in York County, their son would have to wait at least five months for a spot to open up.
Those delays for group homes are common across Pennsylvania, which has a severe shortage of housing for mentally ill people. Mental health care advocates say that while community mental health services have been historically underfunded, the system has been particularly strained since 2012 when former Gov. Tom Corbett cut county funding by 10 percent.
“They don’t have the money,” said Marge Chapman, president of the Dauphin County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “There’s opportunity to get more group homes if the counties had the money to get them.”In desperation to place Winters, the Wilts rented a small apartment in Lemoyne. It was close to their own home where, they hoped, they could keep a close eye on him.
But that didn’t work out as planned.
After moving in, Winters quickly befriended a 16-year-old neighbor. On May 29, a Friday night, Winters was hanging out with his young neighbor and his neighbor’s friends. The 16-year-old asked Winters to purchase alcohol for them but, according to Jennifer Wilt’s understanding of events, Winters told him that he couldn’t get alcohol without a bicycle.
When the 16-year-old procured a bicycle, Winters agreed to buy alcohol.
It turned out that Winters’ neighbor had stolen the bicycle from a nearby home. At 12:20 a.m. on May 30, following a series of events that remain unclear, police responded to a fight in Lemoyne. The 16-year-old was charged with theft of the bicycle and Winters was charged with receiving stolen property. He was jailed in the Cumberland County Prison.
On June 3, In the Cumberland County Courthouse, Jennifer Wilt saw her son for the first time since his arrest. He was clad in an orange jail uniform, handcuffs, and leg shackles.
Jennifer Wilt said it was heartbreaking.
“He just wasn’t understanding the whole situation,” she said. “No understanding why he was in there. It was devastating.”
The courts reached a deal with Winters’ attorney. The judge dropped the charge for receiving the stolen bicycle and instead Winters pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. …But despite reducing the charges, there was a major problem: Winters was still considered on probation in York County because he hadn’t finished his community service for his DUIs.
Jennifer Wilt said Winters had failed to complete his community service because, as with any job that Winters had undertaken as an adult, he couldn’t follow instructions.
He had only had been required to perform 10 hours of community service per week.
“Which seems like nothing,” Jennifer Wilt said. “But for Jared it’s insurmountable.”
Consequently, that June, Winters’ remaining charge for disorderly conduct was considered a parole violation. He was transferred to York County Prison.
An Imprisoned Mind
In addition to his bipolar and anxiety disorder, Winters also has symptoms of mild autism. He is hyper-sensitive to sound and light and he often wears headphones to calm himself.
In the York County Prison, without headphones or medication, the sound of the facility was a bombardment. Winters was housed with about 50 other inmates in a common area and Winters was deeply stressed by the constant clanking of heavy metal doors, the jeers of “The Jerry Springer Show” in the television room, or the plodding of flip flops in the middle of the night as inmates walked to the bathroom.Desperate for silence, Winters told his mother, he crammed pieces of paper into his ears.
…Outside of the prison, the Wilts’ lawyer reached an agreement with the courts that Winters would be released if they could find him a mental health group home.
But the Wilts’ original problem came back to haunt them: there were too many seriously mentally ill people in the county and not enough group home beds.
Jennifer Wilt spent hours calling group homes. But, again and again, she was told the waiting list was four to six months.
Growing increasingly desperate, Jennifer Wilt appeared at a meeting at an eight-bed group home in Hanover and pleaded her son’s case. The staff agreed to move him to the front of the queue – ahead of people who, Jennifer Wilt understood, had been waiting months for a placement.
A Brief Taste of Freedom
After 50 days of imprisonment, Winters was released from the York County Prison in mid-July. Jennifer Wilt still vividly remembers picking her son up that day.
“Mom, this is a dream,” Wilt recalls her son saying to her. “This is a dream. I can’t believe that I’m outside.”
When the pair arrived at the Hanover group home, both Jennifer Wilt and Winters’ excitement grew. His room was filled with fresh linen, he had his own cupboard in a shared kitchen, and their was a TV room with an entire wall of shelves filled with puzzles and boardgames. Most importantly, as far as his mother was concerned, Winters would have independence but be supervised by professionals at the facility.
In addition, the group home also signaled the lifting of a financial burden for the Wilts. For the past seven years, Jennifer, an interior landscaper, and Ron, a state employee, had been going increasingly into debt, spending up to a thousand dollars each month on Winters’ accommodations, food, doctor visits, utilities, transportation, and his various fines.
The couple had limited support from the government. They had been waiting more than two years for the approval of their son’s application for Social Security Disability.
So that day, as Jennifer Wilt drove away, she felt better than she had in years.
But that feeling wouldn’t last.
On July 28, only a week after arriving at the group home, Winters managed to get hold of alcohol. He acted wildly in front of the staff and passed out in front of the residence around 3:30 a.m.
Drinking was considered a violation of Winters’ parole conditions and, later that day, two police officers arrived at the home and brought him back to jail…
A broken system
Today, Winters remains incarcerated. The courts have once again reached a deal with Winters’ attorney: He can be released when there’s a free bed in a group home or a treatment facility.
But there are no free beds.
Last Tuesday, Jennifer Wilt visited her son in prison. It was the first time that she had seen him cry since he’d been arrested in May.
“I’m disgusted with the whole thing,” Jennifer Wilt said. “This is what they’re using as treatment. They don’t have anywhere to put Jared so that’s why he is where he is.”
Daniel Simmons-Ritchie, a staff writer for the Harrisburg Patriot News, is a 2014-2015 John Jay/Langeloth Health and Justice Reporting Fellow. The above is an abridged version of the second part of a four-part series, published August 27, 2015. To read the full story and others in the series, please click HERE. He welcomes comments from readers.