August 11, 2013

Maine's safety net for mentally disabled is frayed

In Lewiston, an alleged arsonist deemed incompetent to stand trial likely will go free and may not get services. Authorities say it's the price we pay for deinstitutionalization.

By Eric Russell
Staff Writer

LEWISTON - Bryan Wood was diagnosed at an early age with intellectual disability disorder. His IQ is under 60.

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Bryan Wood, center, stands next to his attorney Steven Carey, right, during his arraignment in Lewiston District Court on arson charges on May 13. Wood, who has been found incompetent to stand trial, likely will be released at some point after charges are dropped. Brian Morin, left, was also arraigned on arson charges that day.

Maine Sunday Telegram file photo/Gabe Souza

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Sharleen Price, a Bartlett Street resident who previously worked with people with intellectual disabilities, says institutionalization might be a good option for some.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Three decades ago, someone like Wood might have been committed to Pineland Center in New Gloucester, the former institution for children and adults with developmental disabilities who were deemed unable to live in the community.

The closure of Pineland in 1996 and similar fates for other facilities across Maine followed a national push to deinstitutionalize people with developmental disabilities or mental illnesses and to place them in less restrictive housing.

That meant people like Wood were often placed in community-based housing.

From the perspective of a patient, the decision to move away from large mental institutions was long overdue, but along with deinstitutionalization have come some unintended consequences: These individuals often don't get the services and treatment they need, a problem compounded by the continued erosion of funding for services.

In most cases, the person who suffers most is the individual with the disability. But in a handful of cases, failure to receive adequate services can actually threaten public safety.

Wood has been accused of burning down two abandoned buildings in downtown Lewiston on May 6. While no one was physically harmed, the arson fires -- a string of three within one week left nearly 200 people homeless -- have frightened people in Maine's second-largest city.

Wood, who was accused in 2008 of setting a pickup truck on fire in Portland, was charged in the May 6 arson, but a judge found him incompetent to stand trial, based on his disability. He will stay in jail until he undergoes an evaluation by the Department of Health and Human Services.

His attorney, Steven Carey, said Wood then will be involuntarily admitted to Riverview Psychiatric Facility in Augusta. But because the judge ruled that it is unlikely Wood will ever be competent, the charges against him probably will be dropped. Sooner or later, Wood is likely to be back on the street.

"I'm not really surprised that this happened," said Mary Lou Dyer, director of the Maine Association of Community Service Providers. "The safety net is frayed. These are the types of incidents we really need to learn lessons from."

Bonnie-Jean Brooks, president of Opportunity Housing Inc., a Hermon-based social services agency for people with disabilities, agreed that Wood represents an example of how people with disabilities fall through the cracks.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," she said. "There is a whole fringe of the intellectual disability population at risk."

According to the state Office of Aging and Disability Services, 4,400 people receive community-based services for intellectual disability disorder or autism spectrum disorder under MaineCare. Another 1,300 are on a waiting list, a number that is expected to grow as children age out of eligibility for educational services. The number of those people who would ever be charged with a crime is, by all accounts, small, but advocates say even a handful is too many.

It's not clear whether Wood has ever received services he is eligible for under a statute for people with intellectual disabilities, although he has been receiving Social Security disability payments.

At the time of the fire, the 23-year-old was living in an apartment on Bartlett Street, less than a block from the two abandoned buildings that went up in flames. His apartment was run-down and often home to a revolving door of transients, according to neighbors. Before that, he lived with his mother.

"There is a price to pay for deinstitutionalization," said William Stokes, head of the criminal division of the Maine Attorney General's Office. "We don't have the services in the community that everyone agrees we need. So, we do the best we can and hope that they are getting treatment."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Lewiston police Detective Lt. Michael McGonagle said that while authorities may not have been aware of Bryan Wood before his arrest, they will be watching him in the future, “He’s on our radar now,” he said.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Maine Sunday Telegram file photo/Tim Greenway Firefighters spray water on the roof of a vacant apartment building on Bartlett Street in Lewiston on May 6. The building was razed after being destroyed by the arson fire.

Tim Greenway


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