Mom told jail her son was unstable

From The Oregonian, November 7, 2007 – not available online

As Joshua Shane Overstreet was booked into jail on a heroin count, the warning signs quickly added up.

The 18-year-old told jail staff that he had been diagnosed with suicidal depression. His mother, when contacted by telephone, warned that Overstreet was unstable, a danger to himself, and said he should stay in jail , records show.

Overstreet seemed such a risk to harm himself that a staff member recommended against the teen’s release even though the jail typically lets people with no previous criminal record go home right away.

“We did an override,” said spokesman Robb Freda-Cowie.

The mental health team at the Multnomah County Detention Center evaluated Overstreet, and he stayed the night in jail on a suicide watch.

But a Health Department employee at the jail later determined Overstreet was fit for release, allowing him to leave the jail last Friday. The Lake Oswego teenager died about an hour later, after plunging from the parking garage across the street from the jail .

On Tuesday, as Overstreet’s family were preparing for his funeral, officials at the county Health Department declined to provide an explanation or any information about the case, citing privacy rules.

“I’m a little concerned about the details of his release,” said Kevin Bermingham, an uncle speaking on behalf of the family. “We’re just trying to get a memorial service together and at least put that to rest and get some closure for the family. And then we’ll get into the minutia of what went wrong.”

As news of Overstreet’s death spread through mental health circles, officials lamented what they saw as another example of an overburdened jail system struggling to handle an influx of mentally ill people.

“They do the best they can, they’ve got a good staff, but they are swamped with people who should be in treatment rather than incarceration,” said Leslie Ford, chief executive officer of Cascadia, the largest nonprofit mental health care and addictions treatment provider in Oregon.

Ford said that cuts to the Oregon Health Plan and insufficient treatment space had the effect of pushing many mentally ill into the jails .

“This is a dramatic case because this young man was released and demonstrated so quickly that he was not ready to be on his own, but there are many much less dramatic cases that happen every day,” Ford said.

Even as the jail has cut space in recent years, the number of mentally ill people has increased, said Judy Shiprack, director of the county’s Local Public Safety Coordinating Council, which has studied mental illness in the criminal justice system. About 13 percent to 15 percent of inmates report to jail staffers that they have a mental illness, but the true number probably is much higher, she said.

“The sad fact is there is a lot of pressure to release mentally ill people to free up space in the jail ,” Shiprack said. “This is a sad result of that.”

Overstreet wound up in jail last Thursday after a tumultuous day. On Wednesday evening, Overstreet left the residential drug and alcohol treatment program where he had been staying and attending school, his mother told jail staff.

On Thursday afternoon, Portland police arrested Overstreet for using heroin in a downtown Starbucks restroom. They took Overstreet to the downtown jail .

At 10 p.m. Friday, police found him by the parking garage, dead of head, neck and back trauma.

Lee Brown, Overstreet’s former counselor at Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego, said he can’t figure out what happened to the teenager. “I just feel a lot of shock and disbelief that this could happen to Josh, who had so much potential.”

Overstreet grew up in Eugene, where he attended Magnet Arts Elementary School, Jefferson Middle School and Churchill High School. In 2005, after his sophomore year, he moved up to Lake Oswego with his mother, Elizabeth, and began attending Lakeridge.

“I generally have 400 kids on my caseload, but Josh was a very memorable individual,” Brown said. “He was an exceptional student who took AP history and science and other classes, and he excelled across the board. He was very mature, and he could clearly see his path beyond high school.”

Despite the high marks, Overstreet had “attendance issues,” said Lake Oswego School District spokeswoman Nancy Duin. In March 2006, after about 100 days at Lakeridge, Overstreet, his mother and Brown decided that he would begin working toward his GED at Portland Community College.

There was no question that Josh –who came across as a serious, ambitious, “mainstream student” –would do just that, Brown said.

Yet by spring, a school district secretary noticed that he hadn’t actually been going to the college classes, Duin said.

Later he enrolled at the De Paul Alternative School, part of a youth residential alcohol and drug treatment program in Portland. An administrator declined to discuss Overstreet, citing privacy rules. Records indicate that he dropped out Thursday.