(left) Reginold Stephens and Michelle Dotson speak about their mother's death at a press conference, with support from their lawyer, Leslie Sachanowicz.
(left) Reginald Stephens and Michelle Dotson speak about their mother's death at a press conference with attorney Leslie Sachanowicz. Credit: Roseanna Garza / San Antonio Report

Janice Dotson-Stephens was arrested on allegations of misdemeanor criminal trespassing on July 17. She remained in the Bexar County jail until Dec. 14, when she died, still in custody.

The medical examiner’s office said the cause of death was coronary heart disease complicated as a result of a schizoaffective disorder, a chronic health condition brought on by symptoms of schizophrenia.

At a press conference on Friday, attorneys with the Les Law Group said they are filing a lawsuit on behalf of Dotson’s family against Bexar County and University Health System, who they believe failed to provide appropriate medical care to the 61-year old woman, resulting in her death.

“She should have been given adequate care and she should have been checked on. Instead, she was ignored to death,” said attorney Leslie Sachanowicz. “We believe the death might have been a violation of the Sandra Bland Act,” which mandates county jails divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues toward treatment and requires that independent law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths.

Bexar County officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday afternoon. Dotson-Stephens reportedly was arrested for refusing to leave an East Side senior community; although bail was set for $300, she remained in custody for almost five months.

In late August, a judge ordered a psychological evaluation for Dotson-Stephens; it is unclear whether that evaluation took place, Sachanowicz said.

Michelle Dotson, Dotson-Stephens’ daughter, said her mother struggled with mental health issues for more than 40 years, and often went missing, causing the family to have to contact hospitals, jails, and shelters to find her.

A photo of Janice Dotson-Stephens released by the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department Credit: Courtesy / Bexar County Sheriff's Department

“We were calling, all of us, aunts, cousins, we were looking for her,” Dotson said of the most recent time her mother went missing. “We were calling and they were saying she wasn’t at the jail, and the hospitals were saying she wasn’t dead. We called shelters, but they couldn’t give us her name.”

Family members said they only learned the whereabouts of Dotson-Stephens on Dec. 15, when police contacted her estranged husband to inform him of her death. He had not been contacted prior to that phone call, Dotson said.

Sachanowicz said the family is looking for answers about what might have taken place during their mother’s more than five months in jail, during which she “served almost a total sentence without seeing the inside of a courtroom, and she was never adjudicated.”

“The Bexar County Sheriff’s Department is responsible for the jail, [University Health System] is responsible for providing health care at the jail,” the attorney said. “There should be safeguards in place in the system to monitor people. Something fell through the cracks.”

According to Sachanowicz, Bexar County officials said Dotson-Stephens declined to meet with a lawyer, but her family believes she was incapable of making decisions about legal representation due to her mental illness. Regardless, Sachanowicz, said, the death illustrates a “culture of indifference for her and other inmates struggling with mental health issues in the pretrial system and Bexar County Jail.”

Dotson-Stephens’ children told the Rivard Report they want to bring attention to the deaths of black people and those with mental health concerns at the hands of law enforcement.

“This is bigger than us. This is bigger than our mother,” said Reginald Stephens, Dotson-Stephens’ son. “We want to identify what step was not taken, and what happened that resulted in our mother dying in jail. We aren’t making accusations. We want to have answers as to what the process for this is, because imagine how many other people could have [had this experience].”

While waiting for answers, Dotson said she hopes people can see “that outside of her mental illness she was a good mother, she was a good grandmother. She was more than her mental illness.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.