In a city resigned to seeing untreated serious mental illness spasm into bursts of violence, the savage killing of emergency responder Alison Russo-Elling in Queens this September escalated a sense of urgency to do something — but what?
Peter Zisopoulos, arrested by the NYPD and shown on video stabbing her in a frenzy, had no past criminal history. Now at Bellevue Hospital’s jail ward, he’d lived at home with his family in Astoria, reportedly diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Laws and policies grasp for an elusive balance between civil liberties and compelled treatment for those driven by paranoid delusions and violent tendencies. For family members, the choices are immediate and dire. Keep him at home, try to treat the mental illness, and pray that your adult child doesn’t deteriorate. Days and nights pass in fear that they could injure someone — a family member, a stranger, themselves.
That’s been Clarissa Crader’s life for the past two decades, as a devoted caretaker to her son, Justin Campbell. Clarissa, a retired transit police officer, and Justin lived together in the house she owned in Bushwick even as he caused her unending misery, stealing items and doing damage to their home.
A 2014 police report after she called 911 indicates he threatened to kill her if she didn’t give him money to buy video games. “I fear for my safety with him in the house,” Clarissa told the cops.
As I wrote in the Daily News in 2016 when I first met Clarissa and Justin: “If you haven’t guessed, Campbell has schizophrenia. He believes he’s an undiscovered superstar and diamond-heist mastermind awaiting the paparazzi. Depending on the occasion, he dons identities that include Amanda Bynes, La Femme Nikita and Mathilda, Natalie Portman’s avenging pre-teen from ‘The Professional.’
“But his go-to persona is Harley Quinn from the Batman universe, a psychologist the Joker met in the asylum. The irony being that the asylum is the one place that Campbell has never in his life been.”
‘No One Wants to Do Anything’
But Justin has been on probation for the last five years, arising from a violent 2016 incident too ordinary to make the headlines because his victim did not die. He heard an elderly man call him “faggot” and “pussy” as they crossed paths. It was a voice in his own head talking. Justin slugged the man repeatedly, to the point of unconsciousness, and had to be pulled off by bystanders.
It wasn’t the first time that he had harmed someone. Back in 2008, while he was in a court-mandated psychiatric treatment that Clarissa sought for him under New York’s Kendra’s Law, with biweekly forced injections of the antipsychotic drug Risperdal, Justin “reported[ly] assaulted a neighborhood store owner and was arrested,” according to the psychiatrist who signed his application for court-ordered treatment. He was also arrested “for, allegedly, assaulting and robbing an elderly 78 year old man.”
After the 2016 incident, mental health court, which prescribes treatment instead of incarceration, was not an option. That, too, Justin had tried and failed already, Clarissa said. The judge refused to let him back.
Prosecutors proposed two years in prison and seven years’ probation. “I’ll be OK, ma,” he reassured her in the courtroom, in handcuffs.
She didn’t think so. And she had a decision to make. Bail would be $20,000, and she could scrounge together the money to pay it. But she still hesitated, and lingered on the thought that he’d at least get mental health care behind bars.
“Either he stays in there — and look at him! — or he comes home and drives me crazy,” she considered. “I don’t know which way to go.”
Clarissa paid the bail, and Justin came home. With case management and a required treatment plan that included ongoing antipsychotic drug injections, his attorney managed to keep him out of a correctional facility.
In the six years since that arrest, Clarissa has done everything in her power to make sure that Justin stays safe, while also living a life tolerable to herself. She has a daughter and a grandchild, elderly parents to look after, a future to aspire to.
Meanwhile, her house reeked of vomit.
“Cant, i cant live with him anymore,” she texted me this spring. If it were up to her, Justin would have been in a psychiatric institution long ago. “No one wants to do anything unless someone is pushed in front of a train,” she lamented.
Clarissa sold their house earlier this year, after living with Justin and an endless parade of his raucous late-night guests left her barricaded in her own bedroom. She hired a lawyer, in hopes of gaining legal power as her son’s guardian, to insist on medical treatment. She gave her son thousands of dollars even though she knows he is spending the money on online gambling; replaced phone after phone when the last one gets broken or lost (he fears he’s being tracked); stayed in touch with case managers to ask if Justin is OK, if he’s on the list for housing, if there’s any news at all. At one point, she hired a private investigator to track him, but the investigator could barely keep up.
The shards of Clarissa Crader’s saga suggest what it takes to keep a severely mentally ill family member with the potential for violence from causing harm: devotion, sacrifice, sympathetic support from judges and social workers, and tremendous luck. Housing and mental health services are essential — as is coaxing an adult with rights but impaired judgment to accept them. Some simply never will.
Justin’s probation ended last month. He’s now 41. While his service provider, CASES, told them that they will continue working with him, a crucial piece of the equation will now be missing, since without the cudgel of probation, there will be no consequences if he does not comply. Clarissa’s seen him backslide before, in past assault and robbery cases: “Right when probation is about to end, something goes berserk.”
Sitting next to his mom in a cafe downstairs from her new home in downtown Brooklyn, Justin volunteered to share some thoughts he’d composed on his phone that summed up how he’s feeling at this crossroads.
You pretty much have to place on a petastooL what you value
When that’s established venturing into new paths becomes piece of cake (peach)
Mimicking pink truck that you see ever so often
When his mom sold their home, Justin faced a conundrum shared by many people with mental illness: practically speaking, he would not qualify for housing assistance unless he first became homeless. And Clarissa wasn’t ready to just dump him on the street.
The Neptune Hotel on Broadway, with the J train rattling outside, was Justin’s last landing place in the old Brooklyn neighborhood, earlier this year. Five other hotels had kicked him out by then, for smoking, visitors, property destruction, running nude through the halls.
Clarissa paid the Neptune $6,000 a month for the meager peace of knowing that her child was not, technically, homeless. “It was awesome,” Justin recalled of hotel life. “Just like I was in Disneyland.”
She had tried for years to find suitable housing for her son. Supportive housing, with mental health services on site, sounded promising. But because Justin was living at home, and not homeless, she was told he did not qualify.
She really did not want him at home anymore. She texted a social worker in 2014: “I’m so tired of Justin asking for money everyday. I really am going to have to get him evicted.”
That same year, as Justin faced an earlier criminal charge, Clarissa texted a complaint to a psychiatrist: “What started as supportive housing suggestions turned into a ‘3 strikes’ threat of state incarceration…. Then I was told since I agreed to have him return home during his plea bargain, they can’t offer any housing.”
By then, he already had two violent felony cases on his record.
So she hunkered down in their small row house on Cornelia Street and supported her son as best she could. Justin’s bedroom was a DC-comics-themed hoarder’s sty. His demands for money, and his visitors, became constant. When she could tolerate the filth and stress no more, and decided to sell after 30 years, “I questioned whether I was making a mistake,” she told me a few months afterward. “I was pretty much putting him out into the street.”
Hence the hotel rooms, paid for with the house sale proceeds. When the Neptune’s management, which had been patient and supportive, said they would nonetheless have to increase the room rate to $300 a night because of Justin’s habit of damaging property, Clarissa knew it was time for him to go.
The Neptune sent her an email informing her that her credit card would be charged an additional $600 “to replace the things missing/stolen.” Saturday, April 30, would be his last night at the hotel.
Clarissa was so at a loss for what to do that she asked the hotel manager to advise Justin where to go next. “I am guessing he may have to go to a shelter so they can see he needs assistance with housing,” the manager emailed back.
They wanted to avoid the city’s chaotic 30th Street intake center, where homeless men new to the shelter system must first stay. So she researched alternatives, and found addresses of drop-in centers where he could shower or charge a phone. Perhaps he could get help there.
Justin disappeared into the night. With another cell phone gone, she didn’t hear from him for days. When he did call, it was to report he’d just wandered the streets and the subways, stopping at the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center for respite claiming an injury, hanging at a local smoke shop and playing Lotto.
“My joy is ultimately to put smiles on people’s faces, hear the person laugh and stuff like that,” was his reflection on his wanderings. “A little comic relief.”
Reconnected, mother and son set out together to find help. On West 14th Street in Manhattan, they tried in vain to locate a drop-in center whose address they’d seen listed somewhere. Instead, as if a miracle in answer to their prayer, they encountered a table with a sign reading SOS — “Safe Options Support.”
The state Office of Mental Health representative there offered to send Justin immediately, via Uber, to a safe haven in Brooklyn, an informal residence where he could live and figure out his next move. He jumped right in.
The first steps toward getting help with mental health are getting a diagnosis, then a treatment plan. Justin got plenty of both over the years. But following through was more than he could handle.
In Justin’s initial decade of his descent into mental illness, Clarissa carefully kept a handwritten timeline of Justin’s encounters with psychiatric care and criminal justice system social workers, like a police log. Just six years of arrests and hospitalizations ran to four pages of entries.
The first diagnosis came in 2002, at age 21, when he was incarcerated on Rikers Island on a robbery charge, and got referred to a psychiatrist for “bizarre behavior.” That included “other inmates feeling threatened, hypervigilance and spitting on walls.” His file noted that he refused to take medications.
Another psychiatrist then labeled him with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual code 298.90: “Psychotic Disorder, not otherwise specified.” After his release, he got assigned to the Cumberland mental health center in Fort Greene, with alcohol and cannabis abuse now noted among his issues. Yet his file noted “At this time, not ready for interaction with other clients so will not be admitted to addiction program.” He still refused to take psychiatric medications.
When Justin entered Coney Island Hospital for evaluation the following January, he ended up with another diagnosis: Schizophrenia, paranoid type.
Then came the Kendra’s Law order in 2007, renewed in 2008. A Health and Hospitals system lawyer, a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene representative and a psychiatrist (“schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, cannabis and alcohol abuse”) all signed off. Then a judge did.
“This patient has no insight into his illness,” concluded the psychiatrist in 2008, noting Justin’s repeated failure to show up for appointments or rehab, or even awareness of what medication he was supposed to be taking.
The psychiatrist also noted the two arrests for violent assault during the Kendra’s Law treatment. That psychiatrist told the judge that Justin told him: “I fight when I am disturbed or when the other person is disturbed.”
He prescribed Risperdal and Depakote pills for Campbell to take on his own, plus injections of Risperdal.
Still, Justin’s behavior got more erratic, and more menacing, even to his own mother. “Please call 911 if he seems to be a threat,” one case worker advised in 2014. He raved he was a “little princess” who could just dream and have her “taken out.” That was when she called the cops.
And at times, when Justin’s Medicaid lapsed, Clarissa had to pay the treatment bills herself. “The pharmacy said its $606” she wrote the care coordinator in 2015. “I paid $614 the last time. I can’t do it again.”
None of it prevented the violent assault against the elderly man on their quiet Bushwick block, and the ensuing arrest, incarceration, bail and probation.
“When something tragic happens, then you hear all this outcry. The general public, they don’t really see how hard it is to get help or get someone else to get help,” Clarissa lamented earlier this year. And then she addressed her son directly. “If you had gone to the hospital and said ‘I’m going to stay here, check me in whenever I’m depressed’ or something, it wouldn’t have been a problem, right?”
Clarissa had concluded the obvious by then: her son was in no state to make medical decisions for himself, about his mental health or anything else. While still living at home, he’d developed an infection on his knuckle that became badly infected. As he refused to get treatment, the open wound oozed. Over time, his finger appeared to grow gangrenous.
But he refused to seek help, and she could not make him get medical attention. Instead, she found, social workers were asking for her to help track Justin down during one of his many disappearances.
“We understand that he lives with you and you have to take some responsibility as a parent and help us get him some help,” wrote Derrick Brown, a peer specialist with CASES, in Feb. 2021. Peer specialists are counselors who have been involved in the mental health and criminal justice systems and work as trusted agents to people in crisis.
Months later, Brown would be featured in a video from former city First Lady Chirlane McCray, announcing expansion of Intensive Mobile Treatment Teams as part of her ThriveNYC program, now called Mental Health for All.
“Do you know how I would get a mental hygiene warrant?” Clarissa asked Brown, invoking the court order Kendra’s Law uses to compel psychiatric treatment.
“I don’t know what that is,” came the response. “I will ask team about it tomorrow.”
She responded: “Im tired and Im physically ill from 19 years of fighting the mental health system.”
She kept calling and emailing anyone she could. The result: “phone tag” with the office of then-Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. Adult Protective Services, which intervenes when people can’t handle their own affairs, deemed him ineligible for its services because it couldn’t locate him. She contacted 311, contacted the ThriveNYC hotline, and tried NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which is known for its family support.
When former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ThriveNYC program announced new treatment teams last year, and quoted CASES CEO Joel Copperman, Clarissa felt compelled to write him:
“all i ever hear from each and every ‘program’ is that he is “competent” to make his own decisions,which its obvious to anyone who comes in contact with him that he Is Not. Most in the neighborhood are afraid of him…. Please help, i dont know what else to do at this point. Its been almost 20 years, halftime his lifetime
She signed off: “Please, hes 40 and dying before my eyes.”
Desperate for a sense of agency, she used some of the proceeds from her home sale to pay an attorney a $5,000 retainer. Clarissa would file papers in state Supreme Court, seeking to become her adult son’s legal guardian.
In February, just weeks after Britney Spears won her freedom in a conservatorship case that brought global attention to the dictatorial power of court-empowered family members, Clarissa filed a petition in Brooklyn Supreme Court seeking control over her son’s decisions.
The court appointed an evaluator — and delivered a rude awakening. A guardian, she learned, would have the power to choose one doctor over another, could make decisions about financial matters, but still would not have the power to compel her son to get treatment. Only Justin could decide whether or not he would get mental health care.
What’s more, the evaluator told Clarissa that if she did proceed with her petition to obtain guardianship over her son, she would likely lose her case because of inadequate proof that Justin was incompetent to handle his own affairs — and would then be on the hook to pay thousands of dollars more to cover the evaluator’s bills.
Clarissa, with a heavy heart, withdrew her case in May. She was fed up.
“Im tired of these RIGHTS they claim people have,” she texted me. She couldn’t help but think of her daughter’s boyfriend, an NYPD officer who got turned down for a religious exemption to the city employee COVID vaccination requirement and was on the verge of getting fired when he finally gave in and got the shot.
“The city is threatening to fire people who refuse the vaccine but yet someone with a diagnosed mental illness and substance abuse cant be forced to go into treatment,” she wrote.
Hell or Hope
CASES has assured Clarissa that they’ll continue working with Justin after his probation is over.
Patricia Haversham-Brown leads the Intensive Mobile Treatment program for CASES, overseeing seven teams that each include social workers, peer counselors, two nurses and an assistant, serving 27 clients each.
“When I am talking to staff, I say think about IMT as the last stop on the A train. There is nothing else,” Haversham-Brown said. Criminal justice involvement, substance abuse, mental illness, homelessness — her clients live it all.
A propensity to violence is a prerequisite for getting a spot in the program, and once in, participants keep their spot until they vanish from New York City. Jail, hospital, shelter, the street — anywhere in the five boroughs can serve as an IMT clinic. The peer counselors have lived through their own mental health and substance abuse crises, and their job is to coax seriously unstable people to accept help, including medication.
“We keep trying to build the engagement, build the trust, build the rapport, build the connection,” said Haversham-Brown. “And not to be discouraged when clients turn you away.”
When clients disappear for more than a week, the team conducts a search, canvassing hospitals, jails, family, any location where they might be found.
Justin speaks fondly of his CASES team and says he intends to stick with the mental health treatment, even though his probation is over. “I’m going to put in a little extra overtime. I need the help. I want the treatment,” he said calmly. And he says CASES has made clear it will continue to shadow him with its mobile treatment team: “You can’t run away from it.”
He could choose to apply for supportive housing, where he would have mental health care at hand, but so far has refused. “I’m not sure supportive housing would be helpful,” he remarked when the question came up.
“You gotta become adult about it, you know what I mean?” he said. “I’ve been playing with a teenager thing for a while.”
He’s collecting SSI, and gambling a lot, by his own admission. He demands $120 or $140, just about daily, from his mom to keep the games going. While he’s not paying any rent, he fantasizes about financing an escape with the money he’s saving: “Go buy a timeshare somewhere sometime. Hopefully not in a hurricane.”
But meanwhile, Justin is living on the edge of the law — and each time, his mother the retired police officer is there to catch him from falling. Most recently, he stole a sneaker from a local shop display, in hopes of selling it. She went to return the goods personally.
I assured her she was being a good mother.
“Most times,” Clarissa replied, “I just feel like an idiot.”