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 erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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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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Lindy Lynch is a casework supervisor for Opportunity Housing Inc. She and four others oversee 122 patients with intellectual disabilities. Only one has ever been charged with a crime, Lynch said, a young man who was arrested for gross sexual assault of a minor. He was found not competent to stand trial and spent a short time at Riverview. He was released back to the rural community where the crime occurred. Because the charges were dropped and he was never convicted, the man does not have to register as a sex offender.

"He's receiving case management services, but he really should be in a 24-hour residential facility," said Lynch, who said that example still bothers her.

Lynch said she doesn't think Maine should go back to institutionalizing people with intellectual disabilities, but she thinks there is a definite need for more supervised residential beds.

"I'm really worried about these people who have to stay home alone all day while their parents or guardians work," she said. "They are so vulnerable."

But while most of these individuals are eligible for care, the state cannot mandate that they take advantage of services, said Jim Martin, associate director for the Office of Aging and Disability Services.

THE SYSTEM ISN'T FOOLPROOF

The state has yet to decide what to do about Bryan Wood, but it's clear that Riverview is not a long-term option for him. He does not suffer from a mental illness, his attorney said.

"It doesn't meet his needs," Carey said. "I'm not sure we need to go back to having institutions, but we need an avenue to have services."

The state could hold Wood for no longer than a year, with evaluations every 30 to 60 days.

Because there is already a waiting list for services for people with intellectual disabilities in the community, there are no assurances that Wood would receive what he needs after he is released.

Walter McKee, an Augusta defense attorney who is not involved with the case, said situations like Wood's are unfortunate but rare.

"There is no other way to deal with this," he said. "To make changes because of a few dozen people in the state, that doesn't make sense. But we have law enforcement to keep an eye on these people."

Stephen Schwartz, a Portland defense lawyer who also is not involved in the case, said there are mechanisms in place to ensure public safety, even if that public includes people who are found incompetent to stand trial for serious crimes.

"The court looks to balance a person's needs with public safety concerns," he said. "But I think deinstitutionalization and defunding of services has led to a lot more people on the street who are in need and some are going to commit crimes."

Martin said the state recognizes the critical need to provide services to adults with intellectual disabilities. During the last budget cycle, the Legislature approved an additional $10 million to fund programs for these individuals. That brings the total annual budget to $30 million in state funds, but total funding for Mainers with intellectual disabilities tops $300 million if you include federal dollars.

For the most part, Dyer said, Mainers with intellectual disabilities never commit crimes or get involved in the criminal justice system, but Wood is a reminder that the current system is not foolproof.

"There are many people living in the community who people thought never could," she said. "But we have concerns about where we are going."

Added Brooks: "Things are flipping; these waiting lists are a good example. In an attempt to become more efficient, we've made cuts, often with disastrous results. We can't economize on the back of Mainers who need our help."

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

 

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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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