Vontasha Simms borrowed a car Monday to drive the 45 minutes from her home in Waldorf, Md., to Annapolis, hoping to talk to state lawmakers about mental-health reform legislation bearing the name of her dead grandson.
She had never been to the State House complex before, and didn’t recognize House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) or top aides to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) as they walked past her outside.
In the House of Delegates office building, she wandered the halls, clutching a folder of legal pads and papers and wearing a faded T-shirt that shows her and 3-year-old Ji’Aire Lee, who was found dead on a playground after his mother allegedly pushed him on a swing for nearly two days.
“It’s too late for him,” said Simms, 47. “Maybe I can save someone else.”
Authorities say Ji’Aire died of hypothermia and dehydration. His mother, Romechia Simms, has been charged with manslaughter and child abuse.
Vontasha Simms said her daughter had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression before her grandson’s death. She was hospitalized twice after mental breakdowns. Pleas to authorities to help her daughter went unheeded, Vontasha Simms said, including when she called sheriff’s deputies after Romechia walked on the road barefoot holding her son’s hand.
Since Ji’Aire’s death, his grandmother has become an advocate for boosting mental-health services in the state. She said she wants to save other families from the tragedy that has befallen her own.
She testified before the Charles County Board of Commissioners, urging it to push for a state law that would make it easier for parents or close relatives to take supervisory control over adults suffering from mental illness, and take charge of their minor children. The board put the legislation, dubbed “Ji’Aire’s law,” at the top of its priorities for the 2016 legislative session.
Vontasha said she went to the State House on Monday because she wanted to see how the proposal was faring.
“I don’t know what the protocol is, that’s why I came here first,” Simms, 47, told an aide to Del. Sally Y. Jameson (D-Charles). “I don’t want to be picky. I just want something that helps people.”
The aide shared a draft of the bill, which was no longer what the county board had proposed. It calls for a work group named after Ji’Aire to study Maryland’s mental-health system and identify changes necessary to help adults with serious mental illness and their children.
Jameson, who heads the Charles County delegation, said many of the ideas proposed by Simms are contained in existing laws. She said the bill named for Ji’Aire, which she planned to submit Monday evening, is meant to identify cracks in the mental-health system that allowed the boy to die.
“We need to know what more can we do to make sure this scenario never plays out again in any community,” Jameson said.
Vontasha Simms said she believes a study of the mental- health system could be helpful, especially if it exposes a lack of services across Charles County.
“They are taking a step in the right direction,” she said, adding that she would like to be appointed to the work group, if legislation to create one is approved.
She said that her daughter, who is free on bond, is living with her while awaiting trial, and that she is stable and seeing therapists weekly, spending time with relatives, reading and singing gospel songs.
As Vontasha Simms left the State House to return home, she stopped to look at inscription above the nearby statute of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
“Equal justice under the law. I like it,” she said. “Let’s see if we actually get it.”