Lake County settles jail suicide case for $2 million
Lake County will pay $2 million to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the family of a Santa Rosa social worker who hanged herself at the Lake County Jail.
Elizabeth Gaunt, 56, died Aug. 2, 2015, after she tore a blanket into strips and hanged herself from a sink in a sobering cell while she was supposed to be under close supervision by jail staff. The case has led to procedural changes for jail staff and it revealed the jail’s medical services provider was in violation of state regulations.
Gaunt’s son Dane Shikman, 27, of San Francisco said his mother’s death was preventable and that patrol deputies, correctional officers and medical staff failed to effectively respond to Gaunt’s mental health crisis.
“I feel like I was robbed, she was robbed, our community was robbed of someone so remarkable,” Shikman said. “It (the settlement) is a significant amount of money, and I hope it serves as a reminder for those who choose to take someone into custody they are duty-bound to keep them safe.”
Shikman’s attorney, Mike Green with Abbey, Weitzenberg, Warren & Emery in Santa Rosa, said he believed Gaunt’s case has resulted in the largest settlement in California for a case involving a jail inmate suicide.
Shikman also reached a settlement agreement with the company providing medical care in the jail, Monterey-based California Forensic Medical Group, for an undisclosed amount of money. Representatives from the company didn’t respond Monday to a request for comment.
California Forensic Medical Group was using lesser-trained vocational nurses to make key medical and mental health care decisions for inmates, which violated state law, according to the family’s attorney. The company at the time also didn’t provide mental health evaluations on weekends, according to Green. Gaunt was brought to the Lake County Jail on a Saturday.
“I feel for the family who has lost a loved one, and I never want that to happen to anyone else again,” Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said. “I am doing my part to ensure we have the procedures in place so, to the extent we can prevent it, that doesn’t happen again.”
Martin said he began making changes to a variety of jail procedures soon after Gaunt died. The office acquired larger computer monitors so staff can more easily view multiple channels from jail cameras, staff installed clocks with automatic timers to ensure they fulfill required checks in a timely manner and correctional officers now track required inmate checks through a software program that documents the time, type of check, what’s observed and personnel involved.
They also have swapped wool blankets for a quilted material that is harder to tear. One Sheriff’s Office staff member involved in the incident no longer works for the department, Martin said. He couldn’t provide additional information about the employee’s departure because of personnel privacy laws.
Lake County District Attorney Don Anderson’s office reviewed the case for criminal negligence and in October 2015 announced he found no violations of the law.
“What I can tell you is that our investigation was a parallel investigation to the District Attorney’s investigation,” Martin said. “We identified some things that weren’t done in accordance with policy, and there’s a person who was subject to the investigation who no longer works here.”
Gaunt was a substance abuse counselor who worked for Sonoma County as well as Adventist Health St. Helena hospital, said Shikman, her only child. Born in Illinois, Gaunt moved to San Francisco in 1990 and earned a master’s in counseling at San Francisco University. She moved with her son to Santa Rosa about 15 years ago.
Shikman said Gaunt achieved professional success, defying stereotypes of someone working through issues of mental illness and addiction.
It remains a mystery why Gaunt was in Lake County. Both Gaunt’s son and Martin said they never uncovered how she got to the area or why she was there.
Gaunt was disoriented and confused when deputies found her banging on yard gates about noon Aug. 1, 2015, near Lakeshore Boulevard in Nice, stating she believed it was 2005, she was in Florida and her name was Carrie Scott.
They took her to the jail in Lakeport, where she was placed in a sobering cell. She hanged herself about 26 hours later in the same cell, having never received a mental health evaluation by a doctor.
Gaunt spent the last hour of her life tearing her blanket into strips and fiddling with plumbing fixtures before hanging herself from the sink, according to the District Attorney’s Office. A correctional officer reported she was fine during a required check when in reality video surveillance, later reviewed by prosecutors, showed she was hanging herself.
“There’s a failure of humanity here,” Shikman said. “There were human people looking after her who didn’t care enough to intervene when they saw such serious red flags. It was obvious to any reasonable person that she was in danger.”