Andre Thomas: Services Scarce for Troubled Youths

Andre Thomas with his son, Andre Thomas Jr.
Andre Thomas with his son, Andre Thomas Jr.

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This is Part Three in a six-part series exploring the intersections of the mental health and criminal justice systems in Texas. It examines the case of Andre Thomas, a death row inmate who began exhibiting signs of mental illness as a boy and committed a brutal triple murder in 2004. Blind because he pulled out both of his eyes while behind bars, Thomas awaits a federal court's decision on whether he is sane enough to be executed.

SHERMAN, Texas — In a letter to his pregnant girlfriend, Laura Boren, on July 1, 1999 — the day after his latest threat to commit suicide — Andre Thomas said he worried he wouldn’t be around for his son.

“I love you so much, and tell my beautiful son I love him, too,” he wrote from the Grayson County Juvenile Detention Center. “I cry at night when I think about him having to grow up without [me] being there.”

There was little doubt Thomas, now 16, needed mental health treatment: By age 10 voices echoed in his head; by 13, he had twice attempted suicide. One of his first arrests of at least six came at age 11 after he and some buddies took golf carts for a 4 a.m. joy ride. In 1997, when he was 14, he was caught three times stealing cars.

Though he had done well early on in school, education was no savior for Thomas as an adolescent. At age 16, he was expelled from the Sherman Independent School District’s alternative education program for truancy and required to attend classes at the county juvenile probation department’s Alternative Learning Academy. While there, he told his probation officer that he thought he needed counseling and help with anger management, according to case records. A counselor evaluated Thomas and reported that the young man “would probably benefit from counseling and a medication evaluation.” Instead, he got threats — that he was headed for boot camp or, worse, a state youth prison. 

At no point in his troubled adolescence, his lawyers say, did Thomas receive the treatment that might have steered him off the course that led him in 2004 to murder Boren and her two children. In 2005, he was sent to death row for the crime. (Click here to view an interactive timeline of the case.)

In Texas, there are few mechanisms in place to identify and treat youths who suffer from mental illness, particularly in rural communities like the one where Thomas grew up poor and with little parental guidance. Texas has long ranked last in the amount it spends per capita on mental health care, and fewer than one-third of children identified as having severe emotional disturbances received treatment through community health services, according to 2011 data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Public schools are often the first to see the manifestations of mental illness in youths, but those institutions are set up for education, not health care. Often, children with behavioral problems in school land in the juvenile justice system, which at both the local and state levels struggles to find treatment providers and to afford the ones they can.

“It goes all the way back, often, to schools’ failures to address special education issues,” said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit organization that advocates for criminal justice reform. “In Texas, we don’t have adequate funding or resources for mental health services.”

Fowler helped write a study that the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments issued in July 2011, reviewing the records of nearly 1 million Texas middle and high school students to determine the effect of school discipline on their performance and on the juvenile justice system.

The study found that nearly six out of 10 Texas public school students were suspended or expelled between the 7th and 12th grades. Like Thomas, roughly 15 percent of the students had been assigned to a disciplinary alternative education program at least once. Students with an “emotional disturbance” were more likely to be expelled. Students who were suspended or expelled were more likely to be held back a grade or to drop out. And nearly half of the students who had been disciplined 11 or more times wound up in the juvenile justice system.

Susan Stone, a lawyer and psychiatrist in Austin who is an expert on education and mental health, said the problem for schools is that once they identify a student who needs psychiatric care, they have to treat them. And schools — which in 2011 took a $5.4 billion budget beating from the state Legislature — just don’t have the money to do it.

Undetected or untreated mental health conditions often lead youths like Thomas to the juvenile justice system. But like schools and community health centers, that system struggles with costs and treatment.

Since lawmakers reformed the juvenile justice system in 2007 — an effort to keep juveniles in their home communities, where they could be closer to services and support systems — local agencies have assumed oversight of more youth offenders and their troubles. Directors of county juvenile justice departments in Texas say providing mental health services is their leading concern: At least one-third of their charges are diagnosed with a mental illness, yet only a quarter of youths on probation who have been diagnosed with mental illness ever receive treatment, according to a 2012 report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

The Bexar County Juvenile Justice Department has designed programs that aim to prevent youths from entering the criminal justice system, like giving school police officers mental-health training and sending probation officers directly to schools to act more like social workers than police. “It’s just another support for school districts that are already overwhelmed,” said Dr. Jeannie Von Stultz, the department’s director of mental health services.

The probation department in Grayson County that became a substitute parent of sorts for Thomas during the 1990s dealt less with his mental health than with the behavior it produced. Thomas told his probation officer Mike Polk in May 1999 that he thought he needed counseling and help with anger management. Polk told Thomas that he would set up sessions, but Thomas’ lawyers say they never materialized.

On June 26, 1999, seemingly at his wits’ end with Thomas, Polk sought a judge’s order to send the 16-year-old to the Grayson County Juvenile Department’s boot camp. Thomas threatened to kill himself, scratched the skin off of his wrist with his fingernails and was put on suicide watch. 

During Thomas’s triple murder trial in 2005, Polk told the jury that the young man was highly manipulative, and that he feigned suicide attempts and illness to avoid punishment. Despite his frustration, he said he tried to help Thomas. 

“I don't screw over any of the kids,” Polk told jurors.

A therapist from the local mental health/mental retardation authority who evaluated Thomas in the summer of 1999 found that he had “disturbed personality characteristics, irrational, poor judgment, perception distortions, feelings of unreality and anxiety.” And a judge determined that because of a hernia Thomas was medically disqualified from attending the boot camp as Polk had requested. Thomas was released back to his mother — without counseling — to serve another 15 months of probation. He dropped out of school, got his GED and, as he had hoped, was with Boren for the birth of their son, Andre Jr.

Challenges Despite Reforms

By most measures, the state’s 2007 juvenile justice reforms have been a success. The population in state youth prisons fell to about 1,100 in 2012 from about 3,000 in 2007, allowing the state to close eight of its 14 institutions. Lawmakers this year are expected to consider shuttering even more facilities.

But there have also been unintended consequences for the local agencies that are now bearing a heavier load. In a 2012 survey by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, probation department directors reported facing a severe lack of funding to deal with the increasing number of youths with mental health problems. In the past, many of those youths would have been sent to state lockups, but now counties must provide treatment.

Increased funding from the state has helped, but it hasn’t been enough, Douglas Vance, executive director at the Brazos County juvenile probation department, told The Texas Tribune in August.

“Some departments I know across Texas don’t have licensed mental health professionals on staff,” he said.

The transformation inside the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) hasn’t been entirely smooth, either. Reforms left only the most troubled offenders in state youth lockups. Violence among them began to skyrocket. Youth attacks on staff spiked.

The youths were not only increasingly violent but also mentally troubled, said Lori Robinson, director of specialized treatment at TJJD. Spending on psychotropic medication accounts for 93 percent of the TJJD’s pharmacy expenditures. In 2012, the cost for those medications was more than $450,000.

It’s not just lackluster funding for mental health that plagues both local and state juvenile justice agencies. Mental health professionals are scarce in many areas of the state. In 2009, there were 171 Texas counties without a single psychiatrist, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Thomas never made it to a state youth lockup, or to any regular treatment provider. Like many people with mental illness, he turned to drugs and alcohol as early as age 13 to quiet the cacophony in his mind. By the time he reached his early 20s, he drank and smoked marijuana four or five times a day.

His behavior became conspicuously abnormal. He dyed his hair strange colors, donned camouflage clothing, spoke obsessively about the Bible and taped his mouth shut for days at a time. Once, he ran into a church and dunked his head in a basin of holy water because he said he was possessed by demons, a friend recalled in an affidavit after Thomas’ conviction. He worked on and off for the city of Sherman, a job that included digging graves at the municipal cemetery. During funeral preparations, his boss Rickey Bell wrote in an affidavit, Thomas said he wanted to kill himself. He climbed down into the freshly dug grave and lay motionless on the cold, black dirt.

The more strangely Thomas behaved, the more Boren pulled away and restricted his interaction with Andre Jr. By March 2004, she had moved in with a new boyfriend and had given birth to their daughter, Leyha.

Thomas, however, remained obsessed with Boren and distraught over the life he couldn’t be part of. By the end of that month, she and her children would be dead.  

Interactive map and graph by Becca Aaronson.

This story is part of a collaboration with Texas Monthly magazine. Read the long-form narrative tale of the Andre Thomas case here.

Coming Sunday: On two occasions in the three weeks before the brutal murders, staff at medical facilities sought to have Thomas detained, worried that his psychosis made him a threat to himself or others. Hospitals do not have legal authority to detain people who enter their facilities in search of mental health care but decide to leave. It’s one of many holes advocates say needs fixing in the state’s nearly 30-year-old mental health code.

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