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When the Bough Breaks 

Elizabeth Lynn Faber was ignored by California's mental-health system -- until she killed her baby

Wednesday, Mar 8 2000
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EARLY IN THE MORNING ON SEPTEMBER 6, 1997, ELIZABETH LYNN FABER APPROACHED THE DESK AT THE Hollywood YWCA, where she'd been living for the past five months, and announced that she'd be moving out. She'd put her 4-day-old son, Zelazo, up for adoption, she said, and friends would come by later to pick up her stuff. The receptionist, Heidi Beck, noticed nothing unusual about Faber's demeanor -- if anything, she seemed a little more upbeat -- but she did find it odd that an agency had been willing to take a newborn so abruptly on a Saturday. So after Faber left, Beck called her supervisor, Linda Burch.

"Did you know Elizabeth Faber was moving out today?" she asked.

"No," said Burch. "Where's her baby?"

"That's the strange thing," Beck said. "I haven't seen him all morning."

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Thinking Faber had left the infant behind, Beck arranged to search her room. She found books on prenatal health and baby care, toys and clothes -- all the evidence of a dedicated new mom -- but no baby. Then Beck remembered something: Earlier that day, Faber had come down to the desk carrying a large plastic bag and had asked for the keys to the dumpster. Beck called Burch again. This time, she asked her to send someone to help her search the trash.

Accompanied by Beck, custodian Barry Lockhart poked around in the garbage with a stick until he hit something soft inside a plastic bag. He pulled it out. Beck refused to look, so Lockhart enlisted a man walking by to witness him opening the bag. Inside, he found Zelazo's body wrapped in newspaper and plastic bags. On the baby's right side under his ribs, Lockhart noticed what looked like a stab wound.

Zelazo Faber was officially pronounced dead at 2 that afternoon. The coroner's report named stabbing and possible asphyxiation as causes of death. The coroner also noted that the baby's stomach contained partially digested formula. Shortly before his death, he had been fed.

In the meantime, Elizabeth Faber had taken the bus to Santa Monica, where she called her sister-in-law and best friend since college, Rachelle Murway, from the Santa Monica Place food court. Unaware that the police were waiting at the house with Rachelle and Elizabeth's brother, Jonathan, Elizabeth asked whether someone could come to pick her up. Murway sent the police.

AT THE TIME OF HER ARREST, 24-YEAR-OLD ELIZABETH LYNN FABER HAD ALREADY BEEN COMMITTED at various times to three different psychiatric hospitals in two states, been fired from four jobs (for, among other things, insisting that the world was ending and that she was the bride of Christ). She had been diagnosed at various stages with bipolar affective disorder, organic delusional disorder, organic mood disorder with "mixed psychotic features" and post-traumatic stress disorder, nearly always in combination with polysubstance abuse. She had exhausted her family's patience by eluding, for seven years, their attempts to get her into a structured treatment program. Yet when Jonathan and Rachelle tried to explain to the police what Elizabeth's life had been like, the police asked why no one had done anything to help her.

Like Julie Rodriguez, the young woman who drowned herself and her two children in the Sacramento River last spring after her family had fought for years to have her committed, and Nelly Sofia Carbajal, the 47-year-old Fresno woman who in May 1998 left her newborn in a dumpster to die of exposure, Elizabeth Faber has been embraced by the advocates of change in California's involuntary-commitment laws, who argue that people with close relatives who are mentally ill -- "family members" in mental health parlance -- shouldn't have to wait for an act of violence before forcing someone into treatment. "If I had a high fever and was delirious, no one would make me wait until I lashed out dangerously in that delirium before giving me help," says Carla Jacobs, a board member of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), an advocacy and support group. "They would pick me up, give me antibiotics, involuntarily if necessary. That's why we live in a society, to help and protect each other."

But other people -- among them many "consumers," people with mental illness who must actually use the system -- argue that Elizabeth's story puts other failings of the mental-health system in equally stark relief, to wit, the absence of community services for people with mental illness, particularly the homeless, many of whom would take advantage of services if only the services were there. "Most tragedies can be traced back to a void in community services," says Sally Zinman, executive director of the California Network of Mental Health Clients, an organization made up of consumers and "survivors." "It doesn't sound like this one is any different."

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