How mental health staffing shortages are delaying justice in Utah’s courts

Dec 2, 2022, 1:10 PM | Updated: May 15, 2023, 1:59 pm

SALT LAKE CITY – As the leaves changed colors and fell last month, Matt Gwyther sat in a park surrounded by the evidence of passing time.

“I have this open sore I just want to have closure to,” he said.

As fall gave way to winter, Gwyther faced yet another holiday season without his husband, Dennis Rowley Gwyther.

“Being with Dennis was the first time that I felt like my life was 100% right,” Matt said.

Dennis has been gone since May of 2019. He was shot and killed while driving from Salt Lake to Idaho on Interstate 84.

Prosecutors in Box Elder County charged 48-year-old Jonathan Mendoza Llana with murder and filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty.

Jonathan Mendoza Llana

But Matt says the case has slowed due to uncertainty surrounding Llana’s mental state. Llana was found incompetent to stand trial and ordered to undergo treatment at Utah’s State Hospital in an effort to restore his competency.

Over time, as Matt has anticipated and attended competency review hearings typically scheduled six months apart, his understanding of the term “swift justice” has changed.

“Swift is a matter of years,” he said, “not a matter of months or weeks.”

This year, three competency hearings in the case were either cancelled or continued due to delays in evaluation reports. The reports were either not yet finished or were not filed with the courts in time for review before the hearings.

While delays, to some, are par for the course in the criminal justice system, Matt explained that for victims and their families, a court hearing is not a one-day event.

“You find yourself, kind of the week leading up to the hearing, building up, building up for what you’re going to anticipate on that hearing,” Matt explained, “and then just to have it not happen because somebody didn’t finish their homework, it gets frustrating.”

Staffing is the number one challenge facing Utah’s State Hospital in Provo, according to superintendent Dallas Earnshaw.

The Utah State Hospital in Provo. (Photo: Josh Szymanik)

“They’re not just not turning in their homework,” he said of the hospital’s forensic evaluators, “they’re turning in extra work constantly. And so being behind is not a symptom of not caring.”

According to data provided by Earnshaw, while staffing shortages are an issue, the hospital’s workload has simultaneously increased. They’ve seen a 22% increase in referrals from the courts for mental health evaluations since fiscal year 2020.

The hospital has had a hard time contracting, hiring, and retaining qualified evaluators.

“We’re not in this alone,” Earnshaw said. “This is something that’s impacted health care across the country.”

The KSL investigators have learned that currently, about 33% of initial mental health evaluations for the courts are submitted late, past a 30 day-deadline. While Earnshaw noted, “Over 60% of reports meet all timeline requirements.”

When it comes to reports for ongoing cases, like Llana’s, Earnshaw said delays are less common. When reports are delayed, it’s often due to complexities in the case and a desire by evaluators to be as thorough as possible, he said.

What’s the solution?

“That is a challenge,” Earnshaw said, “because as a community, we have to figure out what’s going on, why we’re in this situation. What caused this great resignation?”

In a case with gun violence and mental health at the center, Matt wants to see changes.

“If we’re not going to address gun issues, that’s fine. Let’s address mental health issues,” he said. “If you pay somebody enough money, they’re going to be willing to work at the state hospital. So is the hospital not getting the funding it needs to hire the staff? Has it not asked for the funding?”

Despite multiple inquiries, officials at the State’s Department of Health and Human Services would not confirm to KSL whether a request for additional funding to address staffing issues at the state’s hospital has made it to Governor Spencer Cox.

Earnshaw wrote in an email to KSL, “USH is working with state leaders to address the workforce shortage issues.”

Those solutions, he said, include compensation, recruitment, and retention strategies.

After months of delays in court, Matt wants to see the state invest whatever it takes to properly staff its hospital – for both patients and those waiting for justice.

“It’s re-victimizing the family by making us wait yet again,” he said. “We should do better.”

Matt and Dennis were together for almost 10 years. The two said “I do” on the first day their marriage became legal in Utah, a Friday in December 2013.

“We were the second or third to the last couple married in at the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office,” he said, remembering the excitement of that day with a smile.

Dennis’ loved ones describe him as a kid inside a man’s body, a tech genius, and a beloved pillar of Utah’s LGBTQ community.

“He always was the guy who never wanted the glory, but always made everything happen,” said Matt.

Thursday, Matt felt a little closer to getting justice for Dennis. He said he got word that Llana’s defense attorneys will not be challenging the latest evaluation from the hospital that deemed Llana competent to stand trial.

However, a competency review hearing scheduled for next week has now been pushed out to January.

“Disappointed at the delay,” he wrote in a text message to KSL Thursday morning, “but I understand this is a long process to get justice for Dennis. I am happy the defendant remains off the streets and unable to effect other families.”

Llana’s attorney did not provide a comment on his behalf for this report.

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How mental health staffing shortages are delaying justice in Utah’s courts