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The Tragic Death of Alesia Thomas Underscores How America’s Systems Are Failing the Mentally Ill


In one California neighborhood, a Black 35-year-old mother, suffering from a mental health disorder, wanted nothing more than to do the right thing for her children. Feeling as if she had nowhere to turn to get help for her condition and believing that her children were in danger by being left under her care, she did what countless messages in the media encourage parents to do — If you can’t take care of your children, take them to the nearest police department, fire department or hospital.

Alesia Thomas, desperately seeking the safety of her children, was punished for that action by being sent to an early grave back in 2012.

The mentally ill woman was tracked down by officers after she left her kids, a 12-year-old and a 3-year-old, in front of a local police station. When they found her, they delivered a series of brutal punches and kicks to her stomach and genitals while she was already in handcuffs and leg restraints.

She later died, although a coroner’s report insisted the cause of her death was “undetermined.”

“She was kicked and she was killed,” economist and educator Dr. Julianne Malveaux told Final Call.

To entertain the idea of anything outside of those key facts, she said, is missing the point.

Only one officer is standing trial as a result of her death and the most severe punishment that Los Angeles police officer Mary O’Callaghan could possibly face, if found guilty, is three years for assault.

When a Black, mentally ill mother needed help the most, she was given a brutal punishment for doing exactly what she had been told was the right thing to do.

The officers, who should have been more concerned with helping her children, focused their efforts on taking their mother’s life.

“Why was this woman treated as less than a human being,” Malveaux asked. “And why, too often, do we see Black women and their cases ignored?”

It’s been two years since Thomas’ death. Her name has remained missing from the Black Lives Matter movement and she isn’t the household name that you would expect her to be. The nation isn’t closely watching the LAPD, urging them to punish the officers who brutally attacked a woman who was already in restraints.

It not only underscores the lack of attention often delivered to the deaths of Black women but highlights the sheer severity of the problem at hand — so many Black lives are being wrongfully taken at the hands of law enforcement that it seems impossible to cover them all.

But, like many other stories of police brutality against Black citizens, another problem existed far before police decided to take Thomas’ life.

Thomas was left without sufficient resources for her mental illness and had nowhere else to turn when she had to make the painful decision to protect her children from herself.

“Ms. Thomas followed the public plea to parents, advertised by Children and Family Services, and other agencies which is the directive to call 2-1-1, take your child to the fire department, police department or a hospital,” Dr. Sandra Cox, executive director of the Coalition of Mental Health, Los Angeles, told Final Call. “The directive is everywhere.”

She said the officers who tracked down Thomas and attacked her sends a disheartening message to troubled parents everywhere who may have had hopes of taking their children to local authorities in order to provide them with a brighter future.

“She just didn’t walk away from them and leave them in the middle of the street … and then this happens to her,” Cox added. “The message that goes out loud and clear as far as I’m concerned is don’t take your children to the police department because your mother may get killed and you may end up being an orphan.”

And that’s just the beginning of such a deeply seeded problem.

Back in the 1980s, Cox explains, former President Ronald Reagan laid the foundation for such tragedies to happen.

“He closed every boarding care facility in the state of California,” Cox added. “That was blatantly obvious to us to see all of these newly homeless people. I think we need to point the blame where it belongs.”

She says that blame should be aimed at the officer who took a troubled mother’s life and the system that ensured her children would be abandoned and her own life would be stolen.

“That’s the LAPD, which is completely out of control, its rogue cops and officer O’Callaghan,” she charged.

Only time will tell if O’Callaghan will be charged for Thomas’ death or if some sort of federal investigation will take a closer look at policing in the Los Angeles area, but even if such a reality played out it does little for the grand scope of things.

The reality is that the slogan “Black lives matter” is a great one, but also one that has been misunderstood by far too many.

“Black lives matter” is not aimed specifically at police brutality or the lives of Black men.

It’s a call that encapsulates not only the need for police reform but also the dire need for more discussions about mental health in the Black community, more funding for underresourced schools that leave Black children at a disadvantage, more resources for low-income parents who desperately need help caring for their children, more attention for communities facing the impact of segregation, more jobs for Black citizens who have been discriminated against by racially biased hiring practices, more protections for low-income communities that are demolished by environmentally hazardous projects, more changes in a criminal justice system that has slapped a target on the backs of all Black citizens and more leaders who are actively fighting for a chance to make a difference for those suffering at the hands of oppression and discrimination.

Because Black lives matter isn’t just about keeping Black people alive. It’s about making sure they have the opportunity to live a life filled with opportunity rather than one spent swimming tirelessly upstream against a current of disadvantages that have been crashing against them and their ancestors for centuries.

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