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

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

click image to enlarge

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

click image to enlarge

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

Additional Photos Below

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."

A VERY UNUSUAL CASE

Cases where a defendant is found not competent to stand trial because of an intellectual disability are rare in Maine, according to prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Most of the time, if a defendant is deemed incompetent, it's because of a mental illness. If that person is hospitalized and treated, he or she could be found competent at a later date.

"It's rare that someone would never be found competent," Stokes said.

One recent instance in which a defendant has been found not competent was the case of Kelli Murphy, an 11-year-old Fairfield girl charged with manslaughter in the July 2012 death of 3-month-old Brooklyn Foss-Greenaway.

In that case, Stokes said, the girl's age and maturity determined her level of competence. It's likely that, as Murphy gets older, she will become more competent and could then stand trial, he said.

William Hall of Bangor is suspected of strangling an acquaintance to death and then throwing him out a window. In May, Hall was found not competent to stand trial for murder. He is being held at Riverview for treatment of psychosis with the hope that he will eventually be able to stand trial.

Wood's case, however, is different. His intellectual disability is not curable or treatable, but given his history, the fact that he will probably go free without supervision is worrisome to Lewiston residents, who are troubled by the prospect that Wood could be released back into their community.

Five years ago when he was 18, Wood was charged with arson, theft and burglary for reportedly stealing a truck from a home in Harrison and then setting fire to the vehicle to cover up evidence. He was found not competent to stand trial in that case as well, and was freed after a stint at Riverview.

Lewiston police Detective Lt. Michael McGonagle, however, said that while authorities may not have been aware of Wood before, "he's on our radar now."

Some residents have wondered whether Wood might be using his disability to his advantage. McGonagle said Wood knew enough to ask for a lawyer before he was questioned by police about the arsons. In court testimony, a friend of Wood's testified recently that Wood often boasted that he could "pretty much get away with any crime he pleased" after the 2008 charges.

Sharleen Price lives on Bartlett Street. From her porch, she can see across the street to the empty gravel lot where two buildings once stood before the May 6 fires.

Price, who worked at Pineland years ago, has firsthand experience with people with intellectual disabilities.

"I know we wanted to put these people in the community, but I'm not sure they wouldn't be better off if we still had places like Pineland," she said. "He needs to be put in a place where he can get help."

Pineland was home to more than 1,500 residents, including children. When it was founded in 1907, it was meant to be a school for the mentally disabled. But starting in the 1960s, society moved away from institutionalizing people with disabilities, in large part because many of them were being mistreated in institutions. The alternative was to place them in less restrictive community-based settings while still providing them care and treatment.

The shift was well-intentioned and aimed at treating people with disabilities with respect. Although there were bumps, disability advocates say it worked well for many years.

"We've created one of the strongest community-based systems in the country; we're one of only 11 states that do not have institutions," said Dyer. "While we're proud of our work, it could be time for some innovation and change."

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

 

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors


Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

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

click image to enlarge

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

 


Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)