Family struggled to find mental-health services for Cleveland woman accused of beating mother to death with hammer

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CLEVELAND, Ohio — Donna Ivy spent most of her life helping others, whether it was through her job at the United Church of Christ in downtown Cleveland or other churches throughout Northeast Ohio.

In the last two years, her top priority was her daughter Dana Witcher, who first displayed signs of an undiagnosed mental illness during her freshman year at Kent State University. Her condition only worsened in recent years.

Ivy and her family tried to get Witcher into treatment any way they could. They were prepared to force the 21-year-old into treatment through probate court.

That fight ended on Thursday when Witcher bludgeoned her 53-year-old mother to death with a hammer inside their Collinwood apartment, according to police.

Family members on Monday detailed their struggle to find Witcher the elusive help she needed in the hopes that others could learn from their struggles in finding help for a loved one in the throes of mental illness.

“She loved her daughter so much,” Ivy’s brother-in-law Rick Witcher said. “And Dana always said how much she loved her mommy.”

Ivy grew up in Cleveland and met her partner of nearly 40 years— William Witcher— when she was 19 years old.

The couple had two children and have a 1-year-old grandson. William Witcher said the two stuck together through good times and bad to raise their children.

Ivy graduated from Lincoln West High School and Cuyahoga County Community College on her way to working for churches including East Shore Church, United Methodist Euclid and Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry doing administrative work.

She landed at the United Church of Christ in 2013, working out of the national office as a customer service representative.

She and William Witcher raised Dana and her brother David, and always stressed the importance of getting a good education. Dana Witcher got nearly straight-As at Glenville High School, where she was a cheerleader, her father said.

She went to Kent State University, where she was an entrepreneur major. Like her mother, she was interested in all things fashion.

Signs of mental illness began in 2015

Family members said Dana Witcher started to show signs of mental illness in 2015 during her first year at Kent State. It began with unexplained outbursts. She was convicted that year of spraying a then-boyfriend in the eyes with Lysol disinfectant spray in a Kent State dorm.

Her mother wanted her to move closer to home, but kept the problems that he daughter experienced at college from most of her extended family. Her parents tried to help her as much as they could without knowing exactly where to turn for help.

They are not alone.

A study released in 2018 by the National Council for Behavioral Health cited the lack of access and the inability to find care as the most significant hurdle for people dealing with mental-health issues. This, despite the fact that six out of the 10 people surveyed said they sought or would seek mental health services for themselves or for a loved one.

“She told me about a year ago that it was getting really bad,” Ivy’s niece Dawn Mizell said. “She said ‘I don’t know if I could help her.’”

‘All this was new to us’

Dana Witcher’s issues became more frequent about two years ago. She’d disappear from the home and end up in a hospital under a fake name. The hospital was not allowed to share information with her family because she was adult and did not want them to know what was happening.

They begged her to stay in the hospital in order to get a proper diagnosis and treatment, but she refused, William Witcher said. Hospital staff told her parents they couldn’t force their daughter to stay and that they would need an order from probate court.

William Witcher said Ivy started the process of how to do that, but never figured out what to do.

Lisa Roth, a partner at Ziegler-Metzger law firm in Cleveland that handles probate cases, said the process of obtaining guardianship over another adult in order to force them to get medical treatment can be a complicated and costly one.

She said a family member would have to get an expert report from a doctor or social worker showing the person is legally incompetent. A court investigator would also have to reach the same conclusion. If a judge grants the guardianship, periodic reports are required by the court in order to continue the guardianship, Roth said.

Compounding the problem for the family was that the incidents seemed happened in periods that Dana seemed fine, her father said said. He said she acted like herself most of the time, but her condition worsened.

“All this was new to us,” William Witcher said.

She started talking to herself more frequently. Once she grabbed her father’s head, pulled it close to hers and asked if he could see anyone inside her eyes.

“I was blown away,” William Witcher said.

She lashed out at her 20-year-old brother and accused him of messing with things in her room, even during times he wasn’t home.

She went through her brother’s room several times and smashed his belongings. He woke up one night to find his sister standing over him, family members said.

The family became increasingly concerned because Dana Witcher’s 1-year-old nephew lived in the home.

Ivy suggested she and her daughter move into their own apartment, so she could try to help her in a one-on-one setting. William Witcher said he supported anything that might help. They moved into their new apartment about three months ago.

‘We never thought she’d do this’

Things didn’t get much better. Dana Witcher stopped eating. She wrapped up the food her mother made for her in plastic and hid it in closets or drawers around the house. She lost about 30 pounds, her father said.

She’d have outbursts and her mother would hold her down until the situation calmed down, William Witcher said. Her parents once tried to trick her into going to a doctor but it didn’t work.

“It was tough to negotiate how to find her the help she needed,” William Witcher said. “We never thought she’d do this.”

No one knows what happened in the early morning hours on Thursday inside their shared apartment on Kewanee Avenue. A neighbor reported to police he heard a fight, someone scream for help and that it sounded like someone was being killed.

Officers found Ivy dead on the floor in hallway and Dana Witcher in a bedroom. Photos from inside the home show pools of blood in several rooms and blood splattered on the walks, where Ivy proudly hanged photos of her daughter. A bloody hammer broken in half was stashed in a food pantry next to cans of green beans and corn.

Family members are now in the process of grieving the death of their loved one and focusing on helping Dana, who is being held in the Cuyahoga County Jail on $500,000 bond on an aggravated murder charge.

Cuyahoga County spokeswoman Mary Louise Madigan said she was unable to say if Dana Witcher is being held in the mental health portion of the jail. The jail has come under scrutiny by federal and state investigators, in part for the treatment of inmates with mental illness.

“Dana has the love and support of her family,” William Witcher said. “We don’t want to see her in jail or prison. She needs to be in a hospital to get the help she needs.”

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