The Wahkiakum County Eagle - Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

Family tries in vain to get help for ailing member


March 29, 2018

Courtesy photo.

The Wages family share a happy moment together. Front, left to right, Don Wages, Sr., and Doloris Wages, and back, l-r, children Don Wages, Jr., Sundee Einarson, Lee Wages, and Penny Paulsen.

Since December, members of Lee Wages's family have been pleading with the mental health department in Wahkiakum County to get help for a man they love so much.

They are frustrated that their exhortations to the mental health department weren't enough to avert a crisis like the one on March 21, and they want to figure out how to make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else.

The family acknowledges that the mental health department made contact with Lee more than once. They acknowledge that when mental health asked him if he were taking his medications, he said yes. The family even acknowledges that at one point mental health brought his medications to him.

They understand that a specific threat had to be made before the mental health department could act.

They just didn't want the situation to get to a point where their brother or anyone else was in danger. They wish that mental health could have done more, sooner.

"We struggled and did everything we could possibly do to keep it from happening," Lee's sister Penny Paulsen said. "We begged and pleaded, called and went down to mental health I can't tell you how many times. They knew it four months before this ever happened. We told them, because we'd been through it before, this is what is going to happen."

"When Lee was approximately 24 years old," Lee's brother Don Wages, Jr., said, "he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He really had problems coping with it. We couldn't get him any help until he threatened someone's life, or his own. Finally that did happen. He got on a medication and leveled out and was doing really well."

Lee also met a woman named Anna and got married. He worked for Wally Kaste and Mike Phelan, as well as Fred and Crystal Stanley for over 20 years.

"There weren't any incidents at all," Don said. "He did fine."

"Lee and Anna never had anything," Penny added. "They lived in this teeny tiny single wide trailer, had animals, and were so in love. Honestly, besides my mom and dad, they probably had the best relationship I've ever seen in my life. They loved each other and respected each other. They were both silly. We know he was a little bit off. We've always known that, but it didn't matter."

Lee's niece, Chelsea Paulsen, pointed out that Anna was Lee's caretaker as well as his wife. Besides making him happy, she made sure he ate meals and took his medications.

"Anna was everything he had," Chelsea said.

Chelsea's sister, Nichole Most, echoed the others' sentiments.

"Lee is an animal lover," she said. "He loved his wife like nobody's business, and while they were the two oddest people that you'd ever met, they had a love for each other that was so sweet and strong and innocent. They renewed their vows a couple years ago down at the river and it was just the most beautiful little hillbilly thing you'd ever seen."

Everyone laughed happily at the memory.

When Anna died in 2016, Lee started to go downhill.

"We noticed deterioration in him mentally from the moment she passed, but more so in the last six months," Chelsea said.

"At dad's 80th birthday in October, we were all so happy," Penny said. "Lee came in and played some music. He was laughing and looked good. From October to December, I wouldn't have recognized him if he was walking down the street. His face was drawn, he was scared."

That's when the family contacted mental health and asked for help.

"You would think somebody could have helped him before he went off the deep end," Don said. "I guess that's the whole issue isn't it? I don't know what the answers are, but I know what happened here wasn't it. I really feel like mental health could have done more than what they did. If they couldn't have, then things need to change before somebody does get killed."

Or incarcerated.

"They weren't able to protect him before," Nichole said. "How can we protect him now? Our fear is that one way or the other he is going to end up in some sort of institution, whether it's the prison system or a mental health facility. How do we protect who he is in one of those situations? When he is taking his medication he is a sweet and simple man. What happens to this sweet, simple, fragile man from now on, since nobody was able to protect him before?"

"We're afraid we've lost that sweet, sweet man that we once had because of how far his mental state has gone and that is the fault of the mental health system," Chelsea said.

"We need some answers," Penny said. "They failed my brother. They failed our family. They are failing our community."

Because of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) laws, Wahkiakum Health and Human Services cannot comment on this case. They cannot even acknowledge whether or not Lee Wages was a client.

"Mental health has to work within the law," Sheriff Mark Howie said during an interview about the incident. "I'm answering from a law enforcement side and what I see. They probably have even more constraints than I am aware of. Sometimes this just happens. You could say that mental health should have been out there two weeks earlier, but it might have happened two weeks before. [Mental health] has a lot of laws and parameters. They can't just go out the first time they contact someone and ITA (involuntary treatment) them unless they are actively trying to hurt themselves or someone else. We could all know when we leave that the guy is on the edge, and not have enough to take him."

Wahkiakum Health and Human Services Director Chris Bischoff and Tristan Wozniak, who was recently named the Behavioral Health Manager for Wahkiakum County, could not talk about the case but spoke at length about involuntary treatment.

"They probably haven't committed a criminal act, and so you are suspending rights with no criminal act," Bischoff said of ITAs. "We take that very seriously; judges take that very seriously, and the state takes it very seriously."

They try to do what they can to avoid going so far as to suspend a person's rights.

"We are obligated by our ethics and state law to attempt every possible lesser restrictive alternative that we can because we know that commitments and detainments and involuntary hospitalizations are proven to be harmful," Wozniak said. "We see people in the community and try to do everything we can to keep them in the community, to wrap supports around them, to keep them safe and stable. "

They are learning that outcomes are generally better when a person is getting care while in the community rather than being institutionalized.

"It's a balance," Wozniak said. "How do we get people help who can't get help for themselves and get them back to their communities? How do we keep the community safe?"


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