Courts - Oregon Mother describes struggle to get aid for son Man was shot by Portland police after wounding an officer

By Maxine Bernstein

The Oregonian

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- Felesia Otis watched her outgoing, artistic son, who studied graphic design and architectural drawing at Benson Polytechnic High School, slowly deteriorate into a mentally ill recluse.

Keaton Otis kept to his room, avoided contact with people and hardly talked or ate. "It's been such a devastating couple of years," Otis said, speaking of the struggles she and her husband had trying to get care for her only child.

"When you accept that your bright, creative son who had all the possibility in the world, and now isn't able to do anything -- it's the most horrifying experience and gives you a sense of powerlessness."

Keaton Otis, 25, was shot and killed by Portland police last month after he wounded an officer during a traffic stop. The barrage of gunfire on that May 12 evening immediately became a high-profile case, but the Otis family says the struggles began many years earlier.

As the clinical director for Volunteers of America, helping prison inmates transition back to the community, and the clinical adviser to the Portland police Services Coordination Team, which finds treatment for repeat offenders, Felesia Otis knows what resources exist.

But still, she said, she couldn't get the help her son needed.

Felesia Otis feared her son was starving to death, but a psychiatric nurse practitioner told her that Keaton didn't meet the criteria for a mental health commitment.

So now Felesia Otis, 50, and her husband, Joseph Otis, 51, are speaking out. They are pushing for reforms that would broaden the "imminent danger" requirement for mental health commitments, set up a formal way to assess a person's risk to themselves, and provide alternative avenues for immediate mental health care.

"For us, this has been a longer-term journey than what happened that night between Keaton and the police," Felesia Otis said. "Even with all that I had at my disposal and knowing what I know, I still couldn't get him the help that he needed, still couldn't intervene in a way that could help my son.

"It's horribly sad for us, but it's also horribly sad for those families that don't even know what they're looking at."

Born in Portland, Keaton grew up in Southeast. From an early age, he loved to build with the handmade wood blocks his grandfather gave him. He attended Sabin and Buckman elementary schools, where he befriended other kids easily.

During his early teens at Hosford Middle School, he joined the Prospective Gents Club, a group that supports young African American males, working to build character and help them through college.

After graduating from Benson, Keaton developed interests in film and photography and began his own business, hand-designing T-shirts and jackets. He had planned to study at Portland State University but spent several years living with cousins in Canada before returning to Portland in 2007.

That's when his mother noticed he was suffering from depression. He also started to say things that didn't make sense. "Mom, I think somebody is crawling up under the house," or "Why is that guy across the street standing?"

It escalated to a point where Keaton would tell her and her husband to whisper in the house, concerned someone was taking his ideas and making money off them. Soon, Keaton wouldn't talk to his mom unless they were driving in the car.

On his birthday, Jan. 4, 2008, he agreed to see the psychiatric nurse practitioner, who prescribed an anti-psychotic and antidepressant. Soon, he complained that the drugs "fogged his mind" and blocked his creative juices.

Eventually, he stopped taking medication. By fall 2008, Keaton was staying in his room, keeping the curtains drawn, and wouldn't come out to eat. He refused to seek help.

His mother said she thought he needed to be committed, worried he'd starve. He had dropped 50 pounds, and his cheekbones were protruding. She was told that didn't rise to the level of "imminent danger."

"I can't tell you how much time I spent researching alternatives," Felesia Otis said.

She found some solace attending a National Alliance for the Mentally Ill support group. But her son wasn't getting better. In fact, he stopped eating for days at a time.

By May of this year, she called the nurse practitioner again.

She made another appointment, for 9 a.m. May 13.

Felesia Otis left her home about 5 p.m. May 12, kissing her son goodbye. She had a women's addiction class to teach at Portland Community College. Joseph Otis said Keaton left the house about 6 p.m.

Keaton usually picked up Doritos, sat in Pier Park and then would head home. He didn't come home that night. His parents were concerned and left messages on his cell phone. Maybe he went to his aunt's house, they thought.

Felesia Otis, who doesn't listen to the news, made it to the nurse practitioner appointment the next morning. She presented the computerized "mood chart" she had kept since 2008, charting her son's decline in health. The practitioner said she would have diagnosed Keaton with schizoaffective disorder. She urged his mother to continue to seek his commitment.

Once back home, she called the county mental health crisis line, reported her son hadn't come home, and gave the license plate number of the car he was driving.

By 10:30 a.m., detectives came to her door. They told her Keaton had been involved in a police shooting. He shot an officer and was killed. The Otises couldn't fathom that Keaton had a gun.

"That was the worst day of my life. That was something in my mind I never thought would happen," Felesia Otis said, crying. "It was unbelievable. As much as we thought we were on top of things, we didn't know how sick he was."

Published: Thu, Jun 10, 2010