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Did Mental Care System Fail Betty Madeira? : Crime: An Anaheim woman with a history of schizophrenia is accused of killing her mother. Relatives say they tried for years to get her treatment.

October 21, 1990|ERIC LICHTBLAU and TAMMERLIN DRUMMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

From the military fatigues she favored to the shampoo bottles and cheap watches she obsessively collected to the K-Mart parking lots where she frequently camped out, the family of Victoria Jacobs Madeira saw plenty of signs to suggest that this woman needed help.

No one would listen to their pleadings, the family asserts. But Oct. 14, in gruesome fashion, Madeira allegedly made the point for them.

The Anaheim woman, in her traditional fatigues, was arrested on suspicion of murder outside her 78-year-old mother's La Canada Flintridge home, with her son, 11, by her side in girl's clothes, gold earrings and makeup.

The Roma Jacobs killing, as laid out by authorities, poses a myriad of troubling questions on such social issues as access to firearms and child-custody procedures. But the one that has drawn the most attention from officials in Southern California and Sacramento is, can the state's mental health system adequately identify and treat its Betty Madeiras?

The answer, many say, is no.

Indeed, state psychiatric experts, lawyers and county specialists agree that if the trail of blood left in Roma Jacobs' kitchen is to have any meaningful end, it will lead to reforms in a mental health care system that they describe as ravaged by funding cuts and changes in the law.

"The tragedy within the tragedy here," said Sue North, government affairs director for the California Psychiatric Assn., "is that this case is not atypical and that this is happening with increased frequency on our streets."

Authorities believe Madeira, 43, planned the assault for perhaps weeks from her apartment, then toted four guns and several knives in a cab, along with her son, to Roma Jacobs' sprawling ranch home.

There, prosecutors say, Madeira stabbed her mother several times in the patio area, following her into the kitchen. As the bleeding woman pleaded for help over a 911 line, her daughter and grandson allegedly shot her to death. Shocked deputies heard the fatal shots over phone lines.

"The whole system failed me at every turn," Brian Jacobs, son of the slain woman, said in an emotional interview this week after pleading to state legislators in Sacramento for reform.

The 47-year-old Long Beach schoolteacher said that he tried repeatedly in recent years to get treatment and institutionalization for his unwilling sister, whom he said was found to be a paranoid schizophrenic 22 years ago. For the last two years, Jacobs said, he tried to get Madeira's son taken away from her because of fears that she was harming the boy.

Attempts to interview Madeira were unsuccessful. But family members, neighbors, and court and public records indicate Madeira has lived out of a camper with her son for much of the last year, kept the boy out of school for weeks, and made wild accusations and threats against many members of her family.

Jacobs, along with his fiancee and a private detective, last year launched a surveillance of Madeira to watch over the boy and gather information that could help them in court. Jacobs' fiancee, Carla McLelland, asserts that she saw the Anaheim woman keep her son in the camper for 22 straight hours, the doors chained shut, and other eccentric behavior.

By all accounts, the mother and son seemed inseparable. Witnesses who saw their arrest Oct. 14 said the 11-year-old appeared distressed and banged his head against a police car when Madeira was briefly led away.

When Jacobs approached caseworkers, mental health professionals, lawyers and others over the last several years about Betty, as she is known to her family, the answer was always similar, he said: Unless she posed an immediate danger to herself or someone else, they could do nothing to intervene.

And even after Jacobs and the 11-year-old's father were successful earlier this year in getting the boy placed into a foster home, Orange County social services officials later returned him to her custody, citing her apparent stability.

If California had better funding of mental health services, critics argue, people like Madeira might benefit from closer evaluation of their conditions.

Once a national leader in mental health care reforms, California's public funding for mental health programs has dropped nearly 12% since 1973, taking inflation into account. County emergency psychiatric response teams have been dismantled and clinics have been closed. And the state now has only 1,080 beds throughout California for such patients, contrasted with 5,500 beds in New York City alone, said R.W. Burgoyne, medical director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

A bill proposed in the state Legislature could prompt a massive reform of the mental health care system. It comes 22 years after California, sparking what proved a nationwide trend, enacted landmark legislation making it tougher to institutionalize or force treatment on the mentally ill against their will.

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