SALEM, Ore. (KOIN) — Rian Hansen and Dan Garris each have daughters they love very much. Hansen and Garris didn’t know of each other until their lives intersected when their daughters paths crossed one day in Salem.
For Rian Hansen’s daughter, that meeting traumatically changed her life. For Dan Garris’s daughter, that meeting led to an arrest and conviction.
Both men love their daughters. And both men felt hopeless to help their daughters in the moment.
Rian Hansen is blind.
“I can’t see much at all, just sometimes a little bit of motion or movement if the lighting or the contrast is just right,” he told KOIN 6 News.
He is used to strangers trying to offer unsolicited help when crossing the street. While walking his 6-year-old daughter to the park in Salem one day about 3 years ago, something was strange, he noticed a mysterious, shadowy figure crouching near his child.
“Right before we started to engage the crossing, that person was once again holding my daughter’s hand while crossing,” Hansen said. “My daughter started squeezing my hand a little bit tight, which is the signal that she feels uncomfortable but doesn’t want to say anything.”
The woman, unknown to him at the time, he now knows is Alexa Garris.
“For whatever reason, Alexa was very curious about us and she followed us to the playground. My daughter and I have done this dozens of times before, but before I sat her down, I turned around and, of course, there was Alexa again, and that is where I wasn’t sure what to do. So I gave her yet another verbal warning with volume and tone, saying, ‘Ma’am, you need to leave us the hell alone. You are beyond freaking us out. My daughter’s uncomfortable. We don’t have any business together. Please leave now.'”
But she didn’t leave.
“Alexa went in and actually put her hands on my daughter and whispered something about a religious reference of the Good Spirit of a good place. And she tugged on my daughter. I was strong enough without any retaliation to pull my daughter away.”
“And then I yelled at her, ‘Get the get the F away from my daughter!’ as loud as I could. And I believe at that point she said, ‘Don’t call her your daughter, you demon.’ She pulled my daughter about halfway off of me and I pushed her away with my right hand.”
He was panicked. Hansen began yelling to others at the playground for help.
“I turned towards the play structure and said, ‘Is there any other parents here? I need some help. I am a person who is visually impaired. This is my daughter. I don’t know this stranger and she’s trying to take her away from me’ multiple times.”
Another woman at the park came to intervene. Hansen called 911. Salem police arrested Alexa Garris moments later.
Hansen’s daughter, now 9, still carries the trauma with her.
“She, to this day, has nightmares about it.”
His visual impairment heightened the fear factor he felt as a father in that situation.
“If Alexa was successful, for whatever the reason, if she would have gotten more than 5 feet away from me, I would be helpless and unable to help my own daughter in that situation. There were kids and shadowy silhouettes all over the place. So to that I say, ‘Alexa, I understand. And we are not angry. We are not personally angry at you anymore, but we are very angry at the situation and how this came to be.'”
Alexa Garris started out like most kids, her father Dan said.
“As a little girl, she was very intuitive, very loving, very interested in life and people, very interested in the outdoors,” he said.
As a youngster, she had a keen desire for helping others. But as a teenager, her father told KOIN 6 News, Alexa spiraled into drugs, getting caught in dangerous situations that subjected her to serious trauma.
That later led to the development of severe and persistent mental illness.
“From (the time she was) 15 to 32, we’ve been advocating for her, trying to support her in a variety of different ways as we’ve sort of tried to navigate the the mental health system in Oregon. And that’s been a trial,” he said.
Alexa has multiple diagnoses: addiction, severe post traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia.
When someone is this sick, Dan said, it’s heartbreaking because it becomes unsafe to have them at home. And getting proper help in the state of Oregon is even more soul-crushing.
“People with severe mental illness oftentimes, I would say, find themselves out on the streets and have no place to go. And it puts them at great risk. They’re very vulnerable out there,” Dan said. “And our daughter was one of those people, and we feared for her all the time so we advocated for her.”
Though Alexa would run away, her parents have fought tirelessly to find their adult daughter and get her into treatment.
“Alexa entered into kind of a revolving door of hospitalization either at the Oregon State Hospital or at an acute psychiatric facility or some other kind of behavioral health facility she’d enter in. And then she was discharged without a real solid plan for her.”
For nearly 2 decades this pattern has repeated.
Mental health facilities stabilized her. Then she was discharged to a hotel. Community hospitals would take her in briefly, then send her to the streets.
This cycle led to continued episodes of Alexa having mental health crises in public.
“It makes me feel angry. It makes me feel frustrated. It makes me feel sad,” Dan said.
“But it also, in a weird way, I guess it has energized both my wife and I to advocate and to try to do what we can. But it really is like pushing that proverbial boulder up a hill. You get it up the hill and then it rolls back down again.”
This uphill battle with the mental health care system in Oregon eventually escalated to the criminal justice system.
Even while Alexa was still delusional at a mental health facility, Dan said she was released against his wishes. Soon after, these strangers stories collided.
“Within 3 weeks to a month, she was arrested in a park because she had entered into another delusion where she thought she needed to protect a young child and she took the child by the hand and walked her a certain distance and she got arrested for kidnapping,” he told KOIN 6 News. “And I think there’s a causal connection between the premature discharge at this facility and her getting arrested.”
THE FATHER’S WORRIES
Rian Hansen said the state not only failed his daughter that day but has also long failed Alexa Garris.
“Other people on the playground now saw that person as a labeled bad wolf when the whole world has no idea she has a bunch of other things to consider,” Hansen said. “I’ve never met her or her family, but I can guess that she’s a daughter. I have a daughter, which means there’s another parent out there that’s worried about his daughter just as much as I’m worried about my daughter.
“And I worry about Alexa and I have a pain in my heart for her parents, what they go through every day. And I must wonder, I have systems in place for my daughter every day, and I wonder what systems are in place for Alexa’s parents regarding her health and mental health and physical health and future and safety of others.”
Dan Garris said Alexa’s criminal conviction only further complicated getting her help.
“It complicates it because now she’s viewed differently. Now she’s in the criminal system. She’s viewed as someone who’s done the deviant thing, and what she did was wrong, but she did it under a delusion.
“So it complicates things because we don’t really know where to go from here at this point in time. She’s in a placement where she can stay for now. If that fails, where can she go next?”
To protect his daughter and the greater public from harm — Garris believes Oregon should provide lifelong secure residential treatment facilities for the mentally ill.
“I know it’s a scary idea to think about permanent lifetime secure facilities that would appear to rob people of their freedom. And nobody wants that. I don’t want that. I don’t want that for my daughter,” he said. “I want her to have a life. I want her to be happy. But above all, I need her to be safe. I don’t want her out on the streets.”
As the primary caretaker for Alexa’s 10-year-old daughter, Dan Garris wishes for a safe place for his granddaughter to visit her mom.
“(Alexa is) someone who, at this point in her life right now, is not going to be able to live independently. And there are others like that. And so there has to be a place where people can land that’s secure,” he said.
A secure place, in his mind, requires the state to make careers in mental health more enticing, attracting highly-skilled professionals and establishing dignified environments.
Hansen thinks the state of Oregon needs to step in when people can’t care for themselves.
“It’s not just the bad wolf on the playground. It’s the framework of the local government that should be protecting all of its citizens, including the perceived bad wolf, who is just a citizen with exceptional qualities that we don’t understand,” Hansen said.
Rian Hansen and Dan Garris are challenging the state of Oregon to create communities where public parks are safe and people with mental illness can live and have a sense of purpose.
It is clear that Oregon is facing a shortage of resources to address our addiction and mental health challenges.
But the burning question is: Just how many additional resources are required to effectively address these specific diagnoses and the rising severity of cases?
Organizations that specialize in homeless services, addiction and healthcare have meticulously analyzed the date to provide state leaders with a concrete roadmap for a way forward.
This is a first for Oregon. The next part of this series will feature a roundtable discussion looking at the analysis.