by Michael Barajas
January 4, 2019
Three days after Christmas, family and friends of Janice Dotson-Stephens packed into pews inside the Lewis Funeral Home in San Antonio, mourning the 61-year-old great-grandmother’s death at the Bexar County jail earlier that month. Mrs. Janice, as she was known by those close to her, raised four children as a single mother in public housing on the city’s East Side. Family members called her “Richard Pryor-funny,” her jokes too salty to repeat inside the funeral home chapel. One niece told me she thought of Dotson-Stephens as a second mother. Her daughter, Michelle Dotson, told fellow mourners that she confided in her mother, whom she remembered as a “loud, boisterous, hilarious, explicit and boldly honest woman.” She ended her eulogy by singing one last time with her mother, standing next to the open casket and sobbing along to the gospel song “Open My Heart.”
Dante Dotson says he can’t grieve unless he understands why his mother died in jail. Dotson-Stephens, who struggled with mental illness since she was a teenager, hadn’t been taking her medication for schizophrenia when San Antonio police arrested her on July 17 and charged her with criminal trespass, a class B misdemeanor. Dante said that when family members learned of the arrest, they called the state hospital — where his mother usually landed after an episode — but she wasn’t there. Dotson-Stephens’ 88-year-old father, who had power of attorney, called the jail but couldn’t find her there, either.
Family members thought Dotson-Stephens had been released and would eventually resurface. The morning of December 15, sheriff’s officials informed them that Dotson-Stephens had died of natural causes in lockup the day before. They were shocked to learn that she was still in jail nearly five months after her arrest on a low-level charge.
“I can’t mourn until I find out why she died this way,” Dante said before his mother’s memorial service. “I don’t understand it.”
Dotson-Stephens’ death in custody drew national outrage because a $30 bond payment could have secured her release and kept her from spending her final days in jail. Her family questions why officials confined someone with a lengthy, documented history of mental illness in jail for months on such a petty charge. A week after Dotson-Stephens died, her family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Bexar County officials. Their attorney, Leslie Sachanowicz, alleges Dotson-Stephens was “ignored to death.”
Dotson-Stephens slipped through the cracks in a county that’s been lauded for how it treats people with mental illness who enter the justice system. For nearly two decades, San Antonio and Bexar County officials have pushed reforms designed to shuffle people in psychiatric crisis toward treatment instead of jail — people like Dotson-Stephens, whose history at the intersection of mental illness and the criminal justice system stretches back decades.
Court records show that in 1982, Dotson-Stephens was committed to Rusk State Hospital after injuring Dante, her oldest child, during a psychotic episode. Dante said there were numerous other arrests and hospitalizations after that. In 2010, after threatening her husband with a knife, Dotson-Stephens was sent to the North Texas State Hospital. In both cases, charges were dismissed or pleaded down to misdemeanors after she completed treatment.
Her family insists it should have been obvious to jail staff that Dotson-Stephens was in crisis after her arrest last summer, saying she talked to herself when she went off her meds. Dante said she also refused to eat when she was sick; he fears she wasted away in jail. Months after Dotson-Stephens’ 2010 arrest, for instance, a doctor requesting a court order to compel treatment noted that her condition worsened the longer she remained in lockup, to the point where she refused to bathe and had begun to hallucinate and lose weight.
Court records for Dotson-Stephens’ most recent charge indicate that she repeatedly refused to be interviewed by officials or go to court once she landed in the jail last summer. Jail records show that nobody, including her court-appointed lawyer, ever visited her. In August, a judge ordered that she undergo a psychological evaluation, which was still pending when she died on December 14, according to court records. The medical examiner’s office listed heart disease as the cause of death, noting schizoaffective disorder as another “significant condition.”
Citing the family’s lawsuit, Bexar County officials declined to comment and wouldn’t answer questions about the case, including why Dotson-Stephens wasn’t diverted to treatment or whether she received any care for her mental illness during her five months in lockup. The lawsuit accuses the county of violating the Sandra Bland Act, a state law that went into effect in 2017 and requires law enforcement agencies to make “a good faith effort” to put people facing low-level charges and mental health crisis into treatment instead of jail. As required by the new law, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office has tapped an outside law enforcement agency, the Converse Police Department, to investigate the death.
Mental health advocates say Dotson-Stephens’ death in custody is another tragic example of how bad the criminal justice system is at dealing with mentally ill people who enter it, even in a county that’s become a national model. “This really stands out as a case that didn’t need to end this way,” Greg Hansch, public policy director for NAMI Texas, told me this week. “We can do better as a society than just letting people with mental illness die in jail.”
Dante said the family struggles with feeling guilt over his mother’s death, wondering if maybe they didn’t look for her hard enough. He said that over the years the family got used to her cycling in and out of the state hospital due to her illness. “Her disappearing like this, it was normal to us,” he told me. “That’s hard to explain to people who don’t know what it’s like to have a family member [with serious mental illness].” He said he’s worried that the way his mother died sends the message that nobody cared about her.
Ethel Bouldin, Dotson-Stephens’ aunt and a grandmother figure for her children, refuted that notion before she delivered a song at last week’s memorial service. “I know how sweet y’all was to her,” Bouldin told the family. “Nobody has to ask me, I know. So lift your head. Mama’s all right now.”