‘Why didn’t anyone help me?’ – A failing mental health system leads to deadly police encounters

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Dawna Schaub sits at her home in Meredith last summer surrounded by memories of her son, David Donovan, including a photo of him on the table. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Dawna Schaub cries inside her late son’€™s bedroom at her two-bedroom trailer in Meredith last summer. Memories of her son, David Donovan, were all over her home.

  • Memories of David Donovan, including a collage, are on display in his mother’s home. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Dawna Schaub cries outside her two-bedroom trailer in Meredith last summer. Memories of her son, David Donovan, were all over her home. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Dawna Schaub prays in the living room of her two-bedroom trailer in Meredith last summer. Memories of her son, David Donovan, are placed all over her home. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 12/18/2021 1:20:37 PM

The homes Dawna Schaub cleaned for more than a decade were overflowing with reminders of the life that had been taken from her — rows of shoes by the door, birthdays circled on the kitchen calendar, graduation photos of beaming children.

“There are all these family photos, and I can’t look at that right now,” she said. “I can’t watch their happy endings.”

Shortly after her son was shot and killed by police in November 2020, Schaub traded her clientele of well-to-do homeowners for odd jobs at cottages around Lake Winnipesaukee.

She preferred to clean up after tourists packed their tidy lives into suitcases and drove away.

Memories of Schaub’s son, David Donovan, remain grouped into small memorials around her two-bedroom trailer in Meredith.

Photos of the auburn-haired 35-year-old sit beside dried roses, a CD of his music from a brief recording stint in Seattle, photos of his teenage daughter, and some candles.

They serve as mementos to his life before a meth addiction quickly wore away her son’s gentle tendencies and before the night when Donovan, in the midst of a mental health crisis, walked toward Meredith police officers while armed with several knives. The memorials capture her son as she remembers him: a man who baked cakes for her in an oversized chef’s hat and taught kids who lived in the adjacent apartment complex to play the ukulele.

“My youngest grandgirl called him Uncle Day-Day,” a family friend wrote to the Laconia Daily Sun shortly after he was killed. “They had tea parties, sang together, played, and she adored him.”

It has been more than a year since he died, which has given Schaub plenty of time to replay the last year of his life over and over again in her head. She desperately weighs whether any permutation of his treatment journey could have produced an outcome where David, her David, wasn’t dead on the pavement outside her trailer.

What if the hospital had just held him a little longer, she wondered. What if she had been stricter with him? What if she had gone to the governor’s office and pleaded with him on her hands and knees to do something to force David into treatment?

Instead, Schaub, like dozens of other families in the state, lives in a reality where her loved ones’ mental health crisis ended in a deadly police encounter.

In New Hampshire, more than 60% of the people shot and killed by police in the last decade struggled with mental illness, according to a Monitor analysis based on years of Attorney General reports. All five of the deadly police shootings in the last two years have involved someone in the midst of a mental health crisis.

Ethan Freeman, 37, who lived with delusions and paranoia most of his adult life, was shot while running naked and unarmed at a Thornton police officer in October 2020. Carl Manning, 62, who suffered from bipolar disorder, PTSD and addiction, was shot by police in April 2020 in Manchester while holding a small revolver to his head and repeating “shoot me, shoot me.” Jeffrey Ely, 40, who became increasingly convinced voices in his head were trying to kill him, was shot by state police in March 2021 after firing at SWAT team members in Claremont.

No federal or state agencies routinely collect data on the role mental illness plays in police shootings. Independent databases, compiled by researchers and news outlets have estimated at least a quarter of fatal police shootings in the United States involve someone with severe mental illness. The figure appears to be higher in New Hampshire, though it is difficult to compare analyses that use different methodologies to determine whether someone had a mental illness.

Mental health advocates say these deadly police encounters represent a breakdown in the behavioral health system. Geoffrey Melada, a spokesperson for the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit dedicated to the treatment of severe mental illness, said an inadequate number of public psychiatric beds coupled with an underfunded mental health system has created situations in which people don’t receive help until they’re having a psychiatric emergency.

For people like Donovan, shot by police while in crisis, the help never arrives.

‘Why didn’t anyone help me?’

Schaub knew all the signs of a meth addiction.

Her late husband, Donovan’s father, had struggled with a heroin addiction for 14 years while they lived in Florida. She ended up leaving her hometown for the Northeast after he turned to meth and became abusive.

When she moved to New Hampshire, she thought she and her children had escaped the fate of her husband. Schaub relaxed as her three children passed through their teens and 20s, what she thought of as their most susceptible years.

Then, new neighbors moved next door and Donovan started stumbling home from their house with dilated pupils and itchy skin. He was later diagnosed with “unspecified schizophrenia,” and “unspecified depressive disorder” that one doctor noted was possibly worsened by his substance abuse.

In a mere matter of months her youngest son — who lived in the trailer with her for most of his adult life — turned against her. Donovan became convinced that Schaub was a stranger occupying his mother’s body and planned to hurt him.

He began calling 911 to report snakes in his closet, dead bodies buried under his house and home invasions. He called the police station so many times, many Meredith Police officers knew him on a first-name basis.

“He was advised to stop calling the police or he could be charged with false reporting,” one officer wrote after Donovan called four times in one night to report snakes in his luggage.

Many police calls ended in trips to the emergency room for psychiatric treatment.

Donovan had been admitted to Lakes Region General Hospital five times over seven months.

Despite Schaub’s pleas to hold him for longer, Donovan was usually released within a couple of days into her care with a list of mental health resources, which he often tore up on the way home from the hospital.

Meanwhile, Donovan’s paranoia increasingly took aim at his mother. He became more and more violent, once throwing a wooden chair that narrowly missed Shaub’s head, instead chipping the linoleum kitchen counter.

Desperate to get Donovan into treatment, Schaub filled out paperwork on two separate occasions to have him involuntarily admitted to New Hampshire Hospital, the only state-run inpatient psychiatric facility for adults. A doctor or mental health clinician must perform a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether patients pose a danger to themselves or others before an involuntary admission petition can go to court.

Schaub said neither of her petitions ever made it in front of a judge.

In late February 2020, after she filed her first petition, the hospital discharged Donovan less than 24 hours after he was admitted.

“He feels he is safe to go home and feels that his delusions and paranoia were from his methamphetamine use,” a doctor wrote. “We will recommend outpatient counseling and therapy for polysubstance abuse.”

When she petitioned for the second involuntary emergency admission in July — four months before his death — doctors agreed that Donovan was too dangerous to be discharged.

“(The patient) has recently engaged in dangerous behaviors, not taking care of self, and threatening towards mother leaving her fearful if he is (discharged) without (mental health treatment),” a clinician wrote on his evaluation paperwork.

They planned to place him at New Hampshire Hospital when a bed opened up.

Three days later, after several attempts to place him at the psychiatric hospital, a psychiatric nurse practitioner from Lakes Region Mental Health Center determined he was “no longer needed for psychiatric admission” and he was sent home to his mother.

“I begged and begged to speak with a judge,” Schaub said. “Why didn’t anyone help me?”

Missed window of opportunity

In Schaub’s mind, the officer who shot her son is not responsible for his death. The systemic problems with the mental health system are to blame, she said.

“How can you blame the officer?” she asked. “He was scared, as we all were. I blame the state of the hospital for not helping me, for letting it come to this.”

New Hampshire’s mental health system, once hailed as a leader of forward-thinking treatment, has slid into a deepening crisis over the last couple of decades, as hundreds of private and state-run psychiatric beds shut down thanks to Medicaid cuts and staffing shortages.

New Hampshire Hospital, which housed more than 2,700 people in the 1950s, now holds about 180 beds today, state officials said. Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s overall population followed the opposite trajectory, increasing about 150% over the same period, according to census data.

As a result, patients seeking an inpatient bed at a psychiatric hospital sometimes wait days or weeks in emergency rooms, a practice that has been the subject of a recent, high-profile lawsuit.

An undocumented number of people, like Donovan, fall out of the mental health system before they receive treatment, said Ken Norton, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness NH.

They could slip below the legal criteria for involuntary commitment while waiting for a bed to open up. They might wait at the hospital for so many days without a hearing before a judge, that their involuntary commitment is considered unlawful. Someone who sought mental health treatment voluntarily might give up as they face a weeks-long stay at the emergency room.

This is what Norton calls a missed window of opportunity.

Had Donovan been placed in an inpatient bed, would his outcome have been different? Would he have found help that could have avoided the deadly police encounter altogether?

“This is a perfect example of someone’s life being unalterably changed because they were not afforded timely access to mental treatment,” he said.

More than half of adults with a mental illness in New Hampshire did not receive treatment between 2018 and 2019, according to a survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. New Hampshire had a lower percentage of people with untreated mental illness than most states but fared worse than the rest of New England.

The solution isn’t as simple as opening hundreds of new psychiatric beds, Norton said. Some factions of the advocacy community view it as a step backward toward the mass institutionalization of the early 1900s, he said. In an ideal world, New Hampshire would have a robust community mental health system that could provide care outside of a hospital.

The community mental health system is heading in the right direction but is nowhere near where it needs to be to have so few inpatient beds, Norton said.

“How many years should we be going with 20, 40, 50 adults waiting in emergency rooms for days and weeks for institutional inpatient beds because, philosophically, we don’t want to build more beds?” he asked. “What can be more institutional than sitting in a hospital gurney in the hallway?”

When asked to explain why Donovan was discharged, Matthew Johnson, a spokesperson for Concord Hospital, declined to comment, citing healthcare privacy laws. Though Concord Hospital did not own Lakes Regional General Hospital when Donovan received care, they obtained the facility’s medical documentation through the acquisition process.

David Donovan’s mother, his next-of-kin, offered to sign a waiver that would release the hospital from confidentiality laws, but Johnson still declined to comment.

“It is a long-standing practice of Concord Hospital not to discuss the care of individual patients,” he said.

In the months before Donovan’s death, Schaub took it into her own hands to protect her son from himself.

She stayed awake until early morning listening for squeaking floorboards and creaking doors. When she packed him lunch for work at the Meredith Marina and Boating Center, she slipped in notes written on the back of old envelopes.

“Son, here are the important numbers to call,” one read. “You need to get away from here and this is a new start — please call. I’ll go with you. I love you, xo mom.”

Donovan told her he could get better on his own. Once, he barricaded himself in his bedroom with a chair and battled his addiction out loud, Bible in one hand and a guitar in the other, remembered Theodore Blaisdell, Schaub’s boyfriend who also lived in the trailer.

“I don’t want to do it, I can’t do, I’m not gonna do it” Blaisdell heard him say.

Within a couple of days, he was out of control again — climbing into open car doors at gas stations, throwing furniture around the trailer, banging on people’s doors with a wooden bat.

Heeding some of the recovery counselors’ advice that she needed to let her son hit rock bottom, she filled out a no-trespass form at the Meredith Police Department to keep Donovan out on his own until he realized he needed help. She returned to the station the next day to withdraw the order after a night of guilt-ridden sleep.

When Donovan hurled an acorn squash at her head (“like a baseball,” Blaisdell recalled in a Monitor interview) one October morning, causing her left cheek to swell and mottle with blue and green streaks, Schaub returned to the police as a last resort.

Too embarrassed to go into the police station, she spoke to an officer from her car who helped her submit a statement.

“Schaub said she was hesitant to come here because she just wants Donovan to seek treatment for his drug addiction,” the report read.

Police arrived at the trailer to arrest Donovan for domestic assault and found a letter scrawled by Schaub on the kitchen counter, beside a piece of squash shrapnel.

“You assaulted (your) mom,” it read. “You hurt me (for the) last time. Move out ASAP.”

Fatal encounter

Donovan experienced his final crisis while living with his close friend, Erica Fry, and her two children, who lived in a two-story townhouse 200 feet from his mother’s trailer. He lived there for 10 days while he waited for a judge to rule on charges of domestic assault.

After an afternoon of playing music and eating homemade stew, Fry went upstairs for a nap, only to be awoken 20 minutes later by her two young children yelling that Donovan was “flipping out.” Fry did not want to be interviewed for this story, as the episode is difficult to recount.

She ran downstairs and found the leftover beef stew strewn about the walls, the front window broken and her ukulele smashed. Steven Fry, Erica’s brother and Donovan’s friend of nine years called 911 slightly before 8 p.m. In grainy footage from a neighbor’s security camera, Donovan paces back and forth while waiving his hands erratically.

He walked over to his mother’s trailer and asked for a lighter over and over again. Schaub and Blaisdell sensed he was on the brink of crisis and followed him back to the townhouse.

As Schaub ushered Fry’s two small children upstairs to safety, Donovan nicked his mother in the back of the calf with a knife he had taken from Fry’s kitchen. When Blaisdell and Fry tried to intercede, he stabbed both of them, too.

Within minutes, Meredith Police officers Kevin O’Reilly and Christopher Heney exited their cruisers with their guns raised. They had both responded to calls involving Donovan before.

“(He’s) going crazy; he’s off again,” Schaub and Blaisdell told them.

Despite Donovan’s delusions and paranoia, O’Reilly had always encountered a young man he later described to investigators as “an agreeable person that was nice to them and rarely combative.” That night was different.

They commanded Donovan to drop the knife.

“Fuck you,” Donovan responded.

Instead of putting down the knives, Donovan began “acting strange and yelling something,” the officers recalled in an Attorney General report about the incident. He stepped forward and raised his arm into a Nazi salute. Three silver kitchen knives in Donovan’s hand glinted in the headlights of O’Reilly’s police cruiser. Heney noticed blood dripping off one of them.

“David, stop!” Schaub yelled.

Donovan headed toward one of the cruisers, which O’Reilly realized was still running with its front door propped open. O’Reilly said he worried that if Donovan made it inside, he would have access to the department-issued M4 rifle mounted between the driver and passenger seat.

He closed in on Donovan, repeating louder and louder to drop the knife, drop the knife. Heney fired his Taser, but only one of the two barbed prongs latched onto Donovan.

“Is that all you’ve got?” Donovan asked, plucking it from his chest.

He took two steps toward O’Reilly, narrowing the distance between them. Two loud pops sounded through the parking lot.

Donovan fell onto the pavement, one bullet in his right arm and another in his abdomen. Schaub remembered tripping over a tangle of Taser wires as she ran toward her son who was slumped, fatally wounded on the ground.

Since that night, Schaub has left his bedroom in the trailer untouched.

The photos of Donovan’s daughter with a big, toothy smile and straight blonde hair are tucked into the edges of his mirror. A pair of his beige lace-up boots sit beside the closet. The Bible he used to stave off his addiction lays open on his nightstand.

Atop the bed, Donovan’s favorite sweatshirt is pulled over a pillow, the arms placed on his ukulele — one around the neck of the instrument and one along the strings — as if it might start playing. She hides the pillow, which she sometimes refers to as David, in the closet when her other children visit.

On one afternoon, months after the incident, a lawnmower started humming outside of the trailer, and the smell of grass and gasoline floated in through the open back door.

“Should I open David’s windows?” Blaisdell asked.

“I don’t — ” Schaub started, then choked. Tears trickled down her cheeks, as she looked over at his bedroom door. “I don’t want his scent to get out.”


Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.



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