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Mental problems behind many dramatic Modesto area crimes

Elizabeth Cathrine Kropp, 1984 Oakdale High School graduation photo. Parents Don and Judy Kropp say their daughter was struggling with mental illness for 23 years. December 16, 2009 (BART AH YOU/bahyou@modbee.com)
Elizabeth Cathrine Kropp, 1984 Oakdale High School graduation photo. Parents Don and Judy Kropp say their daughter was struggling with mental illness for 23 years. December 16, 2009 (BART AH YOU/bahyou@modbee.com)

A few years ago, Judy Kropp spoke to a group of police officers and told the story of how her daughter's life had been derailed by mental illness.

The officers wanted training on how to deal with mentally ill people. Kropp was happy to share her family's story. They had had positive experiences with the police. Once when her daughter, Beth, was acting strangely in front of a grocery store, officers had taken Beth to the hospital instead of jail. Another time, officers visited their house and acted almost as counselors, effectively calming Beth.

"I encouraged them to keep that up," Judy Kropp said.

That 43-year-old Beth Kropp was killed in a confrontation with police last week is one of the ironies of her story. Another is that the Kropps were understanding people who provided a loving and stable home to their daughter. They confronted her illness and learned how to navigate the mental health system. By all accounts, the Kropps did everything right in their battle against Beth's illness.

But in the end, the illness won.

Beth Kropp was shot by police after she walked onto an elementary school campus hitting herself with a meat cleaver.

She joins an unhappy list of mentally ill people who've had violent confrontations around Modesto this year. In January police shot to death a mentally ill man wielding a sword. Also that month, a Del Rio man with a history of mental illness was charged with murdering his parents.

On Feb. 16, a Riverbank man who relatives said struggled with mental problems was arrested in the stabbing deaths of three relatives. Later that month, a mentally ill man with a knife broke into a Modesto radio station. He was arrested on vandalism charges.

It would be easy to blame those incidents and Kropp's death on shrinking budgets for mental health services. The county's mental health department — Behavioral Health and Recovery Services — has seen an 8 percent drop in its budget, from $79.8 million to $73.6 million, over the past five years. Clinics have closed in Patterson, Oakdale and Ceres. A program for homeless mentally ill people was cut.

But the explanation for Kropp's death is more complex, and less comforting.

"The reality is that some people have an illness that's really, really difficult to treat," said Denise Hunt, director of Behavioral Health and Recovery Services.

"And we still don't have the answers or all the treatments and cures for mental illness. I wish we did. If we had the answers, we would have the solution."

Adult chose to leave

Beth Kropp, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, was an independent adult living in a rented room in Modesto. During bad periods, voices in Beth's head told her to kill herself. She told her parents once that the movie "A Beautiful Mind" captured what it was like to be schizophrenic.

Sometimes she would completely lose touch with real- ity. On better days, Beth attended support groups, researched medications, even spoke to groups about living with mental illness. She saw a caseworker regularly.

But in recent years she had cut herself off from her fam- ily, who had become part of her delusions. Judy Kropp said if she had seen Beth last week, she would have noticed the signs that her daughter was drifting into a bad period. But Beth wanted to live apart from her parents, who live in Oakdale.

"It was Beth's choice not to see us," Judy Kropp said. "I can't say that was the county's fault. I wish I had an easy answer. I wish I could say, if we had just done X thing it would have been better. But that's not true."

People as sick as Beth Kropp do better when they're in supervised housing, where someone can make sure they take medication and don't miss doctor's appointments, said Joyce Plis, secretary of the county chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Plis, whose son is schizophrenic, said it's common for the mentally ill to have no concept of time. In su- pervised housing, someone can make sure they stick to a routine. That's crucial, Plis said. It only takes two missed doses of medication for her son to spiral out of control, she said.

Her guess is that Beth Kropp may have missed a dose or two. "If she was put in a place where she had good medication and had a good home, this would not have happened, I'm sure," Plis said.

There's been a "marked decrease" in such housing in Modesto over the past several years, the mental health department's Hunt said. Years ago, there were hundreds of beds of such housing, Hunt said. Today, there's less than a dozen such places, Plis said.

Options better elsewhere

But Judy Kropp said she's reluctant to point to the lack of supervised housing as her daughter's downfall. Yes, she remembers how she nearly cried in Norway when she saw a home for mentally ill people that had a garden, individual rooms with windows and a dining room that served nutritious food. Nothing even close to that exists in Stanislaus County. But even if it did, Kropp said, Beth could have come and gone as she pleased.

"Beth might have checked herself out," Kropp said. "We don't let Alzheimer's patients decide where to go, but mentally ill patients are allowed to decide where to go."

Police get training

Some people want Judy and Don Kropp to blame the police for Beth's death. But they say they're not interested in doing that. They think the police did what they had to do.

Dealing with mentally ill people is a more than a daily occurrence for Modesto police. In November, officers put people on "psych holds" 96 times — meaning that the person was deemed a danger to themselves or others and taken to a mental health facility. In November 2008, officers used psych holds 109 times. Though Police Department budget cuts have trimmed access to some types of training — learning how to track Internet crime, for example — Modesto police have maintained mental health training for officers, said police spokesman Sgt. Rick Armendariz.

The department also has kept up a partnership that started two years ago with Behavioral Health and Recovery Services. Counselors ride along with officers, sometimes on a nightly basis, and help evaluate mentally ill people and get them services they need, Armendariz said.

Judy Kropp said she'd like to see more more training for police officers and a mobile mental health crisis unit that could be deployed to situations such as Beth's visit to the school. But in the same breath, Kropp says those resources wouldn't have saved her daughter — her final crisis unfolded too fast, and Beth was too threatening, she said.

Kropp said the real problem facing the mentally ill is a poverty of understand- ing. There are thought to be about 36,200 people suffer- ing from serious mental illness in Stanislaus County. Kropp, who volunteers once a week at Doctors Behavioral Health, sees some of those people as they enter the mental health system for the first time.

"They come in and they're just starting that journey, and it breaks your heart that they have no idea where to go," Kropp said. "To me, the only good that can come of this is education about mental health. It's really important to me that people can search for help if they need it."

Hunt, the county mental health director, said community reaction to Beth Kropp's death has reminded her that mental illness still carries a stigma. But she said she was heartened to see some people respond with what she called compassion and grace.

"What is there to learn (from Kropp's death)?" Hunt asked. "That we're all in it together, I guess. It's a shared tragedy. It's us in our community experiencing it."

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at lalbrecht@modbee.com or 578-2378. Follow her at Twitter.com/BeeReporter.

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