Should we feel sorry for a troubled teenager who slashed an old woman's throat for no reason other than, well, she's mentally unhinged? That kind of sympathy is hard to muster. But the strange and sad tale of the seventeen-year-old perp should at least make us wonder if her terrible crime would never have happened had she gotten the treatment and care she needed -- indeed, that one of her longtime doctors had tried to get for her.
The disturbed girl first made headlines in March after she reportedly ran away from a group home and attacked a 75-year-old Berkeley woman near the Rose Garden, slitting her throat. The victim lost a lot of blood but survived. The teen, meanwhile, was seen jumping into the convertible of an older woman, whom police later identified as Hamaseh Kianfar, a mental-health counselor who'd met the girl at juvenile hall. It isn't clear what the hell Kianfar was doing with a runaway client outside of work, but prosecutors say she didn't bother to call the cops after the attack. Instead, says Deputy District Attorney Jim Meehan, Kianfar took the girl home and cryptically told the attacker's family members that she'd had a hard day and recommended they keep her away from knives.
In his first media interview about the sensational case, Dr. Anthony Rienzi told Feeder he had desperately tried to get the girl long-term help on more than one occasion prior to the slashing. Rienzi, a psychiatrist at Herrick Hospital, says he first treated her when she was thirteen and has watched her bounce between group homes, juvenile hall, and the psych ward where he works. Psychological tests conducted during that period suggested her IQ was in the mid-50s, meaning she was retarded. In the belief that the results qualified her for psychiatric services, Rienzi wrote last year to a regional center for developmentally disabled children, asking its staff to evaluate her. He says he never heard back from anyone in that program.
A month or so before the crime, Rienzi saw the girl yet again. She was in custody for another matter and had been sent to Herrick after smearing menstrual blood and feces over herself. At that point, Rienzi says he tried to get her placed in Starlight, a locked residential facility in San Jose that deals with severely mentally disturbed patients. Starlight refused to take her because she had been there before and already "graduated," Rienzi says. Juvenile hall authorities didn't want her back either, the doctor adds, because they understood she needed psychological help. Counter to his warnings, county officials placed her in an unlocked group home because they couldn't find a more secure one. "We warned everyone concerned that it would not suffice," Rienzi recalls. "I warned that she would leave it and become psychotic." As he feared, the slasher-to-be fled the home days before the brutal attack. Rienzi says she spent those days living with her "dysfunctional family" and keeping company with an "equally dysfunctional" juvenile-hall counselor.
The psychiatrist blasted a mental-health system he says places troubled youth in group homes that can't meet their needs, or reunites them with dysfunctional family members. Rienzi recalled a case from late last year in which authorities inadvertently released a young teenage girl to her pimp, who had claimed to be her uncle. "There are lots of cases where we are not able to get proper treatment," says Rienzi, who has practiced medicine for forty years.
Feeder contacted the psychiatrist after someone anonymously sent the Express a copy of an August 9 letter Rienzi addressed to Mark Kliszewski, the court commissioner in the case, as well as the prosecutor, public defender, and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson. Only after he dispatched the three-page letter, Rienzi told Feeder, did authorities "get their act together." The juvenile defendant is now on a new medication regimen that has stabilized her, her attorney told the Oakland Tribune. But prior to that, Rienzi had witnessed a disturbing cycle: The girl would get stressed -- often around a court date or after an unsupervised visit from her grandmother -- and begin to refuse her meds, then steadily deteriorate and act out.
"It goes without saying," Rienzi wrote, "that if this was a middle-class youngster, the child of professional parents, this situation would not continue. ... She is a retarded African American from a dysfunctional family. She is experiencing, under the care of the court, who are in loco parentis, a continuation of a lifelong history of neglect and abuse."
In juvenile hall, the psychiatrist noted in his letter, the girl is generally denied contact with peers, and during her hospital stays she has been confined to her room "with two large guards outside." He lamented that she had basically been kept in isolation for nearly six months.
But when the jailed teen did have contact with others, it often went poorly. About a month ago while she was in lockup following the slashing incident, Rienzi noted in his letter, the girl again spread her feces over herself and her cell when she felt some new girls on the unit had been teasing her. She also assaulted one of her tormentors. Two weeks prior, Rienzi wrote, she had launched an unprovoked assault on a pregnant juvenile-hall employee. Acknowledging her volatility, the doctor proposed a curious compromise: a court order letting the girl be placed in waist and wrist restraints so she could "mix with the patient milieu."
In his letter, the psychiatrist likened his patient to a "caged, abused animal poked with sticks at the zoo and exploding in rage and helplessly turning in on itself and others in frustration." He asked the court that the trial not be postponed any longer, and that it continue with or without the defendant, whom he argued needed to be placed in a suitable treatment facility. Alternatively, he wrote, the court should deem her mentally incompetent to stand trial. "I do believe that she is indeed unfit," Rienzi wrote, "as does her therapist and others who have seen her."
Commissioner Kliszewski apparently isn't heeding that advice. Last week the teen admitted her guilt and copped to charges of assault with a deadly weapon and inflicting great bodily injury. Her sentencing is scheduled for Tuesday. At that time, the court will decide whether to send her to the California Youth Authority (that is, jail) or a lockdown mental facility. Rienzi worries what will happen to her, especially if she is sent to fester in the CYA, which he doesn't believe is equipped to provide adequate mental-health treatment. "My expectation is they won't be able to give her enough insight to recognize that she has an illness" or the emotional tools to deal with stress and frustration that she never learned as a child, he says. If that happens, he fears she'll continue to act like "a caged animal."
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