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Oct 31, 2012 3:32 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Woman's Death On Street In Hampton Bays Sheds Light On Mental Illness

Nov 2, 2012 12:42 PM

A passerby blessed himself with the sign of the cross last Thursday morning, slowing his steps only briefly in front of the bench where Jackie died. The yellow police tape was pulled away, a bouquet of flowers resting in her place.

Most were accustomed to seeing the frail blond woman perched quietly outside the Starbucks in Hampton Bays at all hours of the day. Few knew the delusional world that she inhabited.

“Jackie and I were always, always together as children,” her twin sister, Jill Iarocci of Patchogue, said Tuesday afternoon. “She had whatever you can consider to be a normal life.”

In 2001, that changed.

Jaqueline Kirmish, who died at age 51, had two children, a daughter who is now 29 and a son who is 31, as well as two grandchildren. She was separated from her husband, but held various jobs, including secretarial positions at medical offices and as a security officer at a Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip.

Ms. Kirmish was kind, but always reserved, and when she began telling stories of people trying to break into her house in Patchogue or trying to harm her, Ms. Iarocci had no reason not to believe her.

But the stories continued, prompting a hospital visit. Ms. Kirmish was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a chronic and disabling brain disorder believed to be genetic that affects millions of Americans. It was severe, and it was steady, collapsing Ms. Kirmish into vagrant lifestyle guided by delusion, despite the tireless effort of her family and friends to keep her from slipping into the cracks of the mental healthcare system.

All attempts at helping her were with met with extreme resistance, Ms. Iarocci’s husband, Michael Iarocci, said. The family first turned to the Suffolk County Department of Social Services, but she would not follow the rules and regulations—nor ask for help from a social worker or consent to a medical exam. Without a determination from the department that Ms. Kirmish was unable to care for herself, Ms. Iarocci said she was not able to give any input, much less convince social services that her sister needed help. Ms. Kirmish was not a threat to herself or others, and after continuously refusing medical care and much to her family’s frustration, she was sanctioned from the system.

They turned next to Suffolk County Adult Protective Services. The family provided them with the facts—that Ms. Kirmish was living on the street, that she would not seek medical care and was unable to provide for herself. But they, too, determined that she was not an immediate threat to herself, and therefore, could not be forced into accepting help.

“We were constantly at odds with her, trying to get her to do something that she didn’t want to do,” Mr. Iarocci said. At one point, they were able to admit her to a mental health ward, though that too fell through when a friend checked her out. “The motivation to be on the street was just overwhelming,” Mr. Iarocci said.

They consulted a lawyer, and considered the possibility of going to court to prove that she lacked the capacity to take care of herself, though that would have been a grueling process with little possibility of a positive outcome because of Ms. Kirmish’s denial.

“I can’t stress enough how much we tried to help her and love her,” Mr. Iarocci said, explaining that he was the last to accept that they had exhausted all options for getting his sister-in-law help or medication, concluding that there were gaps in the system and she always fell into them. “We hope that the system would acknowledge these people, and realize that they can’t function at a level to even answer simple questions on a form, or answer them in a way that would give them help.

“Finally, I just kept quiet and loved her,” Ms. Iarocci added. “And talked about whatever we could talk about.”

Ms. Kirmish was free-spirited in a way few understand, and refused to fit in the confines of society, Mr. Iarocci recalled. Ms. Kirmish spent much of her time in Patchogue, sleeping in shelters or on the street, despite attempts by many individuals, including her family, at least three close friends and church workers to take her in.

“Every place that we put her she either walked away or was thrown out,” he said.

But she was not without a friend. On a bench in front of a business on Montauk Highway in Hampton Bays, his bike resting behind him, Rick Ciccotto, a soft-spoken man with a grizzled face and kind disposition, recalled the day Ms. Kirmish stepped off the train.

“I think she just got off at the wrong stop,” he recalled, so he offered her a bite to eat and a spot in his campsite behind McDonald’s. Though he said it was weeks before she would speak to him, he watched over her, ensuring that she was safe. Without him, she may not have survived as long as she did, the Iaroccis said.

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Carol, thank you for this very touching story. I never failed to feel badly when I saw Jackie on her bench. I was wondering if her lose had been noticed by family and was pleased to see her story in the paper. You did a wonderful job on the story. My sympathies to her family.
By bb (922), Hampton Bays on Nov 1, 12 2:07 PM
3 members liked this comment
May she rest in peace.
By joan s (53), hampton bays on Nov 1, 12 2:15 PM
Oops, loss!
By bb (922), Hampton Bays on Nov 1, 12 2:08 PM
May she rest in peace.
By joan s (53), hampton bays on Nov 1, 12 2:16 PM
I often saw her sitting on the bench.......and worried so. I would offer her food.....she preferred the Starbucks raspberry or banana muffins. I was always happy to accommodate! R.I.P. JACKIE.
By gallerygirl (29), southampton on Nov 5, 12 9:33 PM
1 member liked this comment
and there but for fortune could go anyone of us god bless ,rest easy now jackie
By clutchr (1), riverhead on Nov 8, 12 7:53 AM
1 member liked this comment
RIP Jackie. Now you can watch over me.
I will miss you.
By Itsdee630@aol.com (1), Hampton Bays on Dec 5, 12 11:49 PM