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Criminalizing mental illness; N.D. family shares their story

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LIDGERWOOD—A North Dakota family is making it their mission to fix what they call a broken mental health care system.

The Michael Skroch that the public knows, is a completely different person than his family knows.

"The Mike that we know is someone that is incredibly gentle, incredibly kind, loving, giving," said Alicia Wisnewski, Michael's Sister.

These headlines haunt the Skroch's, their son and brother battling paranoid schizophrenia, an invisible illness with visible repercussions.

Voices, hallucinations, relentless delusions, and emerging personalities with different names; all things Michael, and millions of others with schizophrenia suffer.

This, only a simulation of what life's like for them.

Medication helps to calm the mind, but if not taken or ineffective the condition can prove dangerous to the individual and anyone nearby.

"We went and checked on him at 8:30 in the morning, and he was absolutely wild," said Kathy Skroch, Michael's mother.

When Michael refused to come out of his home last August, law enforcement moved in.

"Completely in camouflage, like soldiers with helmets and weapons and all that, descended upon his home, and he told us he was absolutely horrified," said Kathy.

Boarded up windows and leftover tear gas are what remain of Michael's home in Lidgerwood after a seven hour standoff between police before they finally broke in to get him the help he needed.

"And we came home that evening after this whole ordeal, and there's a message on the answering machine, and it's Michael, and it's him, I know when It's Michael and not Mushka or some other character that he has to defend himself. And he said, 'Mom, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I thought you were a dragon, I'm so sorry.' and he wanted to make it better. And then he was gone. He was gone. It wasn't him anymore," said Kathy.

When he's incarcerated or in the hospital, Michael gets the help he needs, the problem is, they can't keep him long term.

"It becomes exceedingly frustrating circle, like a hamster on a wheel. You get him committed, and they discharge him. He get's a very short time care, and then he's out," said Kathy.

Michael's parents are his guardians and by North Dakota law, guardians can only commit a mental health patient up to 45 days at a time.

So with no transitional facility whatsoever those with mental illness are released, even if family and law enforcement object.

That's what happened to Michael after the standoff.

"So then comes the premature release again, after it took all of this to get him," Kathy.

Two months later his family's fears were confirmed.

Four felony and five misdemeanor charges connected to threatening people, vandalism, and a high-speed chase all in a single night.

He's accused of burning a bible and crucifix on this altar at St. Martins in Geneseo before the chase, crashing his motorcycle into the Tewaukon Wildlife Refuge.

He's currently at the state hospital in Jamestown.

"We need to reconsider where does a patient's individual rights get trumped by the need to keep the community safe," Wisnewski.

Families aren't the only people left asking those questions, it's a problem law enforcement faces firsthand.

Sargent County Sheriff Travis Paeper: , where do we put them? Do we put them in a jail facility? Because that doesn't satisfy their needs," Travis Paeper, Sargent County Sheriff.

"They have worked every angle they can that the laws allow, this is what it took for them to get him. They have been absolutely amazing to work with," said Kathy.

Michael's mother, Kathy, believes the only avenue to change is fixing a broken mental health care system.

"We want to make it better for others," said Kathy.

She's raising awareness to fix it and taking action herself through her work as a state legislator.

"Having a mental illness is not a crime deserving incarceration," said Kathy.

Here, she helped pass Bill 1365 this April, which allows guardians to declare a medical emergency and be in charge of medications for those, like Michael, who are unfit to decide.

"It will save counties and the state thousands upon thousands of dollars by getting people stabilized sooner, back on track sooner, not bogging down the legal system, the law enforcement systems, the court. Everything that will benefit from this one simple bill," said Kathy.

"It's gonna take bits and pieces from all these professionals to come up with better care, better treatment, better facilities. It may have to be instigated by legislation," said Sergeant Paeper.

Next, Kathy plans on pushing other states to adopt similar measures, and the first step of accomplishing that is to spread the word on the problem.

A battle of awareness and change to put an end to criminalizing mental illness.

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