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— Two years ago Mary Schenk received notification that her daughter Donna was self-mutilating. (Family members' names have been changed to protect the child's privacy.) "The school nurse called," says Schenk, "and it was the day Donna started doing it. So we immediately got her in to see a Kaiser psychiatrist who put her on depression medications. And it seemed to help at the time."

But two months ago, after dealing with at least six institutions and agencies in and outside of San Diego County, Schenk faced a cruel prospect. "It's sad, and I'm going to cry now," she said then, "because we're to the point where we may sign her off to the state. And that's something I don't want to have to do. I love my daughter. In fact, today's her birthday. She turned 17 today."

Schenk continued, "The probation officer would only say, 'You know you're running the risk of her never speaking to you again.' But there are financial reasons. And that's horrible to say. It tears me up every time I think of it. My husband and I have been thinking about this independently, and it came to a head last week. He said, 'What's bothering me is all the bills we have.' "

The Office of Revenue and Recovery, a government collection agency, took $800 a month from Roger Schenk's monthly checks to pay Juvenile Hall, Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, and California Life Center in Hemet, where the couple's daughter currently resides. All costs have stemmed from a felony vandalism conviction against Donna in juvenile court.

Donna's troubles with the law started after her mother contacted the Kaiser psychiatrist a second time in September 2002. Says Mary Schenk, "I called because Donna went out of control. She was cutting again; she was threatening to kill herself. The lady at Kaiser could hear her over the phone yelling and screaming, and she said, 'Ms. Schenk, I need you to call 911 and place her as a 5150.' " (California Penal Code section 5150 stipulates that "law enforcement take into custody, for 72-hour observation at an appropriate facility, a mentally disturbed person who is a danger to self or others.")

"When the police came," Schenk goes on, "Donna got up into the officer's face. He cuffed her and placed her into the back of the patrol car. Then I'm hearing over his radio that county mental hospital doesn't want her because she belongs to Kaiser. And the woman was saying, 'Why doesn't the mother take her?' Me take her in the condition she's in? You're going to be scraping me off the freeway."

The police eventually took Donna into Kaiser, which consigned her to Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital for 72-hour observation. With several hours of the observation still to go, the Schenks went to visit the hospital to consult about their daughter's subsequent placement.

"So we were there when the incident happened, when she set off the sprinklers," says Schenk. "Donna was on the third floor. We were downstairs waiting to see the social worker. Pretty soon we were seeing water dripping from the light fixtures. I know it sounds funny. But all of a sudden, you saw people with trashcans trying to catch the water. This is the first floor. And they didn't know where the shut-off valve was. I think they should have known, because the water ran for 15 or 20 minutes."

Schenk says that according to charges brought by the district attorney's office against Donna, she and another girl, while standing on a bed in their room, used a three-inch flexible screw to break into the fire-protection sprinklers in the ceiling. "Being a self-mutilator, [the hospital is] supposed to be watching this girl. How did she get hold of this? 'Well, we can't watch them all the time.' "

Roger Schenk has worked for years in the construction industry, and after doing some research into building codes, he maintains that a mental hospital is required to use "tamper-proof" sprinklers in its ceilings. When he looked at the sprinklers that Sharp Mesa Vista uses, he saw a less-expensive variety known as "tamper-resistant" sprinklers. "What they did," he says, "is converted a regular hospital ward into a mental ward without doing the required modifications. In my estimate, someone got paid to do this crap under the table."

Michael Coronado, who is Sharp Mesa Vista's supervisor of plant operations, says that the hospital uses an institutional variety of sprinkler head. They can withstand 50 pounds of pressure, he says.

Roy Gunner is the attorney from the alternative public defenders office whom juvenile court assigned to defend Donna Schenk after she was charged with felony vandalism. Mary Schenk maintains that Gunner admitted to her and her husband outside of court that the hospital was probably negligent in having the sprinkler system they had. But when she asked him whether he could use that to help in her daughter's defense, she claims that he replied, "She did it, didn't she?" Gunner did not return a phone call about the sprinkler-system issue, a fact that may stem from the confidentiality requirements of all juvenile-court cases and child-protection interventions. These requirements, though understandable, make it difficult to understand Donna Schenk's case. The public is not permitted to attend court proceedings for juveniles and, unlike court records for adult criminal cases, those of juveniles are classified for viewing only by family members and appropriate attorneys (except in serious cases such as murder). Family members are forbidden even to have their own copies of a case's court records.

As a result, the Schenks, although they attended court hearings, are unsure how all the decisions affecting their daughter were made. Mary Schenk believes that her daughter did not have a trial, though juvenile court media relations representative Daryl Acosta says that she had to have one to be convicted of felony vandalism. A juvenile trial does not have a jury; the judge solely determines guilt and punishment.

Donna Schenk spent nine days at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. Then the juvenileprobation department tried to set up a home-detention program for her. "But she decided to go off on me in front of the home-detention officer," says her mother, "and they immediately grabbed her and put her into juvenile hall," where she spent a little more than two months. "They said that she had the shortest home detention in history. So we giggle and laugh. We have to have some sense of humor about this, or I would be nuts."

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