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The father of Meadow Pollack, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High student shot nine times by Nikolas Cruz, believes Henderson Behavioral Health is partly to blame for his daughter’s death, claiming therapists there did not properly diagnose or treat Cruz.
Now, Broward County’s largest mental health provider is defending itself against the charge, saying in a legal filing Wednesday that it had no involvement with Cruz since fall 2016, more than a year before the school shooting, and so does not bear any responsibility in the attack that left 17 dead.
“This was an undeniable tragedy. However, it was not a tragedy that could have been lawfully prevented by Henderson,” the nonprofit organization argues in a motion requesting that a Broward Circuit judge dismiss a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Meadow’s dad, Andrew Pollack.
The grieving Parkland father is also suing other groups and individuals, including an armed Broward Sheriff’s deputy who took cover behind a pillar and did not storm the school building to stop Cruz’s assault.
It’s unclear whether Cruz, who had a serious conduct disorder, got mental health care from any other provider in the community in the year before he showed up at Stoneman Douglas with an AR-15 rifle. Pollack also has named South County Mental Health Center in Delray Beach as a defendant, but the CEO told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that they never saw or treated Cruz.
If Cruz had little to no mental health care in the months leading up to the shooting it could be a factor in explaining why the massacre occurred — and renew demands for better mental health care services in Florida.
The Broward School District was no longer providing Cruz with planned therapeutic and learning support services because he’d withdrawn his status as a special-needs student at age 18 in late 2016, records show. And adults who had taken him into their homes in the few months before the shooting had been encouraging him to see a therapist but said he hadn’t.
“While Nikolas was living with us I had begged him to go to the doctor and get reevaluated because his mother had passed away, and he was very depressed,” said Rocxanne Deschamps, of Lantana, a longtime family friend who let Nikolas live with her after the death of his mother in early November of last year.
“I felt that he should get back on his medication that he had been refusing to take. But he declined to do that,” she said at a March press conference. “He said that it didn’t help him. And I could not force him to do it because he was an adult.”
Cruz’s defense team is still gathering and sorting through his medical records, and declined comment.
The 19-year-old gunman suffered from a host of ailments, including an emotional behavioral disorder that causes people to act in socially unacceptable ways. Police and school records show he was aggressive, impulsive and intentionally annoyed people. He got into fights, destroyed property, disobeyed teachers and was frequently suspended.
He spent time in a special therapeutic school for children with emotional and behavioral disabilities before transferring to Marjory Stoneman Douglas in January 2016.
His mother also told authorities Nikolas was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, autism and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, for which he took the prescribed medications Clonidine and Focalin.
Over the period of several days in late September 2016, crisis counselors from Henderson Behavioral Health responded to Cruz’s home after he punched a hole in the wall, cut his arm with a pencil sharpener and reportedly drank gasoline after breaking up with a girlfriend. He told a classmate he had a gun at home and was thinking of using it, and he wrote “kill” in a notebook.
Police and state welfare workers also responded to the home. No one initiated a “Baker Act,” in which Cruz would have been involuntarily hospitalized for emergency mental health screening.
By law, to be hospitalized in Florida against your will, police or mental health clinicians must find that the person is at risk of hurting himself or others in the very near future.
“As of September 2016, Cruz did not own a gun, but he reportedly expressed a desire to purchase a gun for hunting,” the Henderson legal brief says. He was denying any suicidal or homicidal thoughts. Henderson counselors recommended that Cruz participate in their family intervention treatment program, which provides intensive individual and family therapy.
Crisis service notes obtained by the Sun Sentinel show Cruz’s mother, who is now dead, attended an intake meeting in October 2016. She later terminated the services.
“Ultimately, more than a year before the tragic incident, Mr. Cruz and his mother voluntarily discontinued treatment at Henderson Behavioral Health,” Henderson CEO Steve Ronik said in a written statement provided to the Sun Sentinel. “Mr. Cruz could not be forced into continued treatment in 2016, as he did not meet the criteria for involuntary hospitalization or assisted outpatient treatment at that time.”
The year that followed was a turbulent one for Cruz. He was kicked out of Stoneman Douglas in February 2017 and bounced between several credit recovery schools, designed to enable low-performing students to graduate. Then on Nov. 1, 2017, Cruz’s mother died of pneumonia and he was left without any parent. His father had died many years earlier.
In the weeks before the shooting, he was staying at the Parkland home of James and Kimberly Snead, the parents of a friend of his.
Kimberly Snead thought Cruz needed help dealing with his mother’s death; she took him to a therapist’s office a few days before the shooting. He never saw the therapist, however, because the office was still in the process of confirming his insurance benefits.
Florida has a notoriously inadequate mental health system that provides too few community resources in an affordable way for people with mental illness, some say. The major means of support is involuntary crisis hospitalization for screening, but, even then, many people are never admitted for treatment and are sent home within hours or, at most, a few days.
In 2013, a Coral Springs psychiatrist, Dr. Brett Negin, recommended that Cruz be “placed in a therapeutic residential setting,” according to a letter obtained by the Sun Sentinel. Negin was overseeing Cruz’s medication.
There is no indication that Cruz’s mother ever sent him to a residential treatment center, but some experts in behavioral disorders said that is likely what Cruz needed — intensive, prolonged cognitive behavioral therapy to help him deal with his anger and losses in life. Hands on, daily coaching can help a person change their thought processes and how they react to situations more effectively than, for example, an hour a week of outpatient therapy.
But treatment centers can be extremely costly and most insurance will not cover long-term stays of months or even years.
“They’re very expensive. Many of the treatment centers are private programs and insurance generally does not cover it,” said mental health consultant Ed Levin of Vermont who is past chair of the American Residential Treatment Association. “And the treatment isn’t a quick fix kind of thing, but it’s something that needs to occur over time.”
I wonder if Cruz could have been helped if he has been placed in a treatment center back in 2013 as the psychiatrist suggested?