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A former state ward is accused of killing a mental health worker in Chicago. Staff tried to raise safety concerns before his death.

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 6/12/2019 Elyssa Cherney
a man standing in front of a building © Cook County sheriff's office

Richard Jones crouched in the snow outside a Chicago apartment building, blood smeared across his face.

He was yelling and crying as police officers arrived at the scene in West Rogers Park. They asked if he needed help, but all Jones said was, “Give me your gun. I’m going to kill him,” according to police reports.

A trail of blood led officers to the large apartment building, where they found Anthony Houston dead inside. A veteran employee for the nonprofit Thresholds, Houston was stabbed six times in the face and upper body, a police report said. He worked in the building at a residential program for young adults with mental illness.

Jones, now 24, was arrested that day and later charged with first-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty and remains in the Cook County Jail, where he is being held without bail.

The case underscores some of the broader safety risks that employees at Thresholds, one of the state’s largest providers of community-based mental health services, have faced on the job — concerns that were raised prior to Houston’s killing in March 2018, according to interviews and a Tribune review of police reports and court and state records.

Jones, it turns out, was a former Thresholds client and longtime state ward who had previous violent encounters with Houston, other staff members and residents at the same apartment building, records show. Thresholds, however, said it was not made aware about the problem until after Houston’s death.

“The tragic death of Anthony Houston was absolutely devastating to Thresholds,” CEO Mark Ishaug said. “Anthony was a beloved staff member. He was dedicated and passionate about helping young adults, and we all miss him very much.”

The case also highlights the challenges of helping older youth transition out of state care, particularly those with mental illness who may no longer want to seek help.

Though Illinois’ Department of Children and Family Services tries to prepare young adults for this process, sometimes called “aging out,” the adjustment period can be turbulent. Between 2015 and 2018, about 600 state wards remained in DCFS care until their 21st birthday, which is typically the cutoff, compared with many states that end care at 18.

Jones moved out of the Thresholds program in January 2016 when he turned 21 and declined further services, according to DCFS. He quickly became homeless, cycling in and out of jails and hospitals, according to police and court records. Later in 2016, Jones began visiting the apartment building where Houston worked, prompting police to respond several times after he was accused of attacking or threatening people.

Jones, his public defender and several family members declined interview requests from the Tribune. A Cook County Juvenile Court judge also denied the Tribune’s request to review Jones’ child protection file, which would have shed light on why he first entered foster care, the quality of services he received and the preparations he underwent before moving out of Thresholds.

Ishaug said he could not discuss Jones’ history, citing privacy laws, but he explained that in general young adults with mental illness are an “especially vulnerable and a very complex population.” He also offered condolences to Houston’s family, saying no other employee has been slain on the job in Thresholds’ 60-year history.

a screenshot of a cell phone © Tribune graphics

Though Thresholds said staff safety is a top priority, some employees say management did not adequately address complaints prior to Houston’s death. Employees grew so concerned that in early 2017 they started an effort to unionize, citing safety as a key issue, but that did not come to fruition, according to AFSCME 31 spokesman Anders Lindall. Three current and former Thresholds employees spoke to the Tribune on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

“It’s a tragedy. I didn’t know Anthony, but I think his death highlighted all the inadequacies of the organization to keep both staff and members safe,” one employee said.

A mandatory workplace inspection spurred by Houston’s death also uncovered shortcomings. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration did not cite Thresholds for any violations but issued a letter warning that “all potential measures to protect employees from assaults while performing their job duties have not been fully developed, implemented or enforced,” according to documents obtained through a public records request.

a man wearing a hat and smiling at the camera © Family photo 2008

In the wake of Houston’s death, Thresholds boosted security at its residential sites by adding panic buttons, security cameras and door locking mechanisms while also increasing staffing levels.

Houston’s family says the 50-year-old shift supervisor loved his job at Thresholds, where he’d worked since 2010. His younger sister Cynthia Houston said she did not know that Jones was a former client until the Tribune notified her.

“It made me angry,” she said. “He knew the layout ... he knew exactly what to do.”

‘Significant behavioral challenges’

Thresholds is one of the few organizations in Chicago that offers housing and assistance to older youth in state care who struggle with serious mental illness. Often, it’s difficult for DCFS to find permanent homes, either with relatives or foster families, for these teenagers.

“We know that our clients are coming to us from a place of trauma,” said Marc Fagan, vice president of clinical operations and youth services at Thresholds. “Many have been neglected or abused, separated from their families. They have suffered or witnessed violence, lived in many different locations and they are also suffering with significant mental health challenges.”

Man accused of fatally stabbing 'beloved' mental health worker, prosecutors say »

Ishaug added in a statement: “Our relentless dedication over decades has changed and saved the lives of thousands of young people — made them healthier, found them homes, helped them get their lives back. We will not be deterred from our unwavering commitment to this population while always doing all we can to keep our remarkable staff safe in their pursuit of this important work.”

a large building in the background © Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune

A major contractor with DCFS, Thresholds received $6.4 million in 2018 to provide services to state wards between 17½ and 21, according to DCFS. Thresholds operates about 30 programs and employs 1,300 people across the state, according to Thresholds officials.

Some Thresholds programs for young adults are based in regular apartment buildings, like the one where Houston worked. The idea is to treat people in the community, where they can learn independent living skills by holding a job or attending school.

Jones moved into a Thresholds program in 2014 when he was 19, said Neil Skene, a DCFS spokesman at the time of Houston’s death who has since left the agency. Police records indicate this was a residence in West Rogers Park, where he was arrested twice in 2015 for allegations that he hit a housemate and then threatened and pushed a staff member.

It’s not clear why he first entered state care at age 12, but his time in DCFS custody was otherwise marked by “significant behavioral challenges and several stays in psychiatric hospitals,” Skene said.

While Jones never lived at the building where Houston worked, he knew people who did, including an ex-girlfriend.

A protector

The brick apartment building on Fitch Avenue stands five stories high and boasts a grassy courtyard. It’s located on a residential, tree-lined street not far from a large park with tennis courts.

Thresholds rented seven apartments on the first floor — six for youth in care and one that was used as an office for round-the-clock supervision. Staff members like Houston provided counseling and helped residents with daily chores.

As a shift supervisor, Houston was well-liked by clients and fellow staff, according to interviews conducted by DCFS after his death. Several people said they considered him a “protector” who often reminded residents to lock their doors at night.

“He loved working with the kids and always wanted to just be a positive role model for them,” said Anthony’s sister, Cynthia Houston. “He loved to see someone smile and know that he made a difference.”

Struggling on the streets

When it came time for Jones to leave Thresholds, he told caseworkers that he’d found another place to live and provided his new address, according to DCFS.

But things took a turn, and he soon wound up on the streets, according to police reports that listed him as homeless. He was arrested nine times over the next two years for charges that included aggravated assault, battery and criminal damage to property, according to the Cook County Jail. Chicago police also took him to the hospital four times, the department said.

It was during this period that Jones started visiting the Fitch apartment building, leading to violent clashes with other residents or staff, according to police reports.

In a December 2016 incident, Jones went to the building looking for someone. When a worker, 62, told him the person wasn’t there, Jones threatened her, saying, “You are a liar; I’m going to kill you,” according to the report, which also says he was not taking his medication.

The following November, Jones was accused of attacking his 19-year-old ex-girlfriend as she got off a nearby bus, according to a police report. She told police that Jones punched her and pulled her hair, but he fled before police arrived.

About two months before Houston’s death, Jones allegedly tried to climb into his ex-girlfriend’s first-floor apartment through a window, according to police and DCFS records. A staff member said Jones tried to attack her, so she hit him. The staff member told DCFS that she did not document it in internal work notes because Houston, for reasons that are not clear, advised her not to do so.

“Staff on-site knew (Jones) was coming around, but no specific concerns about him or his behavior was raised up to management for review or help,” Ishaug said, adding managers also were not notified about the police responses to the building.

‘Not sorry’

Alone in his office, Houston heard someone banging on the front door of the apartment building just before 5:30 p.m. March 13, 2018.

He grabbed a can of Mace — a weapon that Thresholds says it prohibits — and made his way to the entrance, where he found Jones ringing the buzzers and cursing, police reports said.

Houston opened the door and an argument ensued until Houston sprayed the Mace in Jones’ face, according to two witness accounts in police reports. Jones then pulled out a 3.5-inch folding knife, police allege, and started stabbing Houston. Houston cried out for help and dragged himself toward his office as Jones ran out the building. The witnesses called 911 and put pressure on his wounds until responders arrived and pronounced Houston dead.

Jones remained outside the building, covered in blood. At the police station, Jones told detectives that he killed Houston because Houston raped a client, according to police reports. Detectives and DCFS followed up on that allegation by interviewing staff and residents and found no evidence that had occurred.

“Jones related that he knew what he was doing, and he is not sorry for what he did,” according to a detective’s report.

The killing rattled staff and residents, some of whom told DCFS officials they did not want to return to the Fitch building. The program has since been relocated, Thresholds confirmed.

While the OSHA inspector began to review the workplace death, the agency received a complaint regarding Thresholds in April 2018.

The complaint said that employees did not receive adequate training on deescalation or crisis prevention and that they felt endangered when conducting solo home visits with clients. It also mentioned that poor cellphone service and a lack of landlines at the main office made it difficult to reach help if a client became violent.

“Several incidents have occurred where employees were threatened or attacked by Thresholds clients, and tried to dial out (to 911) or text someone to request assistance,” the OSHA complaint said.

Thresholds maintains that it has provided ongoing safety training to staff and encourages them to call 911 or report concerns to higher-ups.

Fagan said that clients might threaten staff members or exhibit other “pain-based” behavior stemming from trauma, but that employees know how to handle those situations.

“It’s important to understand we are not looking to have people arrested or locked up, and it is not our inclination to turn people away,” Fagan said. “We are always looking for how we can help.”

Jones’ next court date is Thursday.

Cynthia Houston, who lives in Las Vegas, said she thinks about her brother’s death every day, wondering if any of the changes recently implemented by Thresholds could have saved him.

“It’s crazy. My life is terrible right now,” she said. “I’ve been living through hell for the past year.”

echerney@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @ElyssaCherney

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