AUGUSTA — Residents and officials say they are fed up with the city and its neighborhoods bearing the burden of playing host to mental health patients from across the state who committed violent acts.
Mayfair neighborhood resident Peter DeSchamp — who said his home is 1,371 feet from a new group home at 14 Glenridge Drive that houses a man who killed his brother, and another who killed two nuns and severely injured two others — said he’s putting new locks on his doors and installing a security system “to take care of my family a little bit differently now because of this.”
DeSchamp said he and a few other neighbors easily collected more than 150 signatures on a petition stating the group homes for so-called forensic patients undermine the safety and security of the community. He and others are asking for the new group homes to cease operations.
The public unrest comes as patients are being moved to new residential group homes under a proposal that recently took city officials by surprise.
Mayor William Stokes and City Manager William Bridgeo said Augusta bears an unfair burden since it’s home to the 92-bed Riverview Psychiatric Center, the only mental health center in the state that takes in forensic patients found not criminally responsible by reason of mental defect or disease. They said once such patients are at Riverview, their next step in their treatment processes is often to move into a group home in Augusta, so they will still be close to Riverview in case they need treatment there.
“The issue for me is why is Augusta bearing the entire burden of this?” Stokes said. “That’s not fair. Other communities should be sharing the burden. It can’t all be dumped on us; this isn’t an Augusta problem, we didn’t create it. It was done to us, not by us.”
Stokes said he met with Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and was told the department is aware Augusta bears a disproportionate share of the burden in hosting all forensic patients from across the state. State officials say they are working on a long-term plan to address that situation, Stokes said.
Bridgeo said in his 15 years, that’s the first time he’s heard a state official make such an acknowledgment.
John Martins, a DHHS spokesman, said the department recognizes that Augusta is home to a number of group homes for forensic patients but noted those found to be not criminally responsible often require strict monitoring and have therapy requirements outlined by the court that require them to remain close to Riverview.
He said the DHHS is working with the Department of Corrections to review all statutes related to forensic patients and gathering information from other states to learn how they manage such patients.
“The department is looking at several options that would enable clients to relocate closer to their homes,” Martins said of forensic patients. “We have no firm proposals at this time.”
The state closed three group homes on the state’s east side office complex, which is on the former grounds of the Augusta Mental Health Institute, also the site of Riverview. Patients housed there have moved to two group homes run by Motivational Services, at 14 Glenridge Drive and 22-24 Green St.
Martins said Friday that the last of the three homes on state ground closed two weeks ago.
The forensic patients at the Glenridge Drive site include Enoch Petrucelly, a Palmyra man committed to state custody when he was found not criminally responsible for stabbing his brother to death in 2008, and Mark Bechard, who was committed after killing two nuns and severely wounding two others in a Waterville chapel in 1996.
The move was made in part because while in the group homes on state property adjacent to Riverview the patients there were deemed by the federal government to be ineligible to receive Social Security benefits because they were still considered to be hospitalized.
But off state property — in the case of the Glenridge site, a short distance away across Hospital Street — they are eligible to receive benefits.
Stokes said those benefits are considered important because part of integrating patients back into society includes them being able to live independently.
“And that’s their goal, make no mistake about it,” Stokes said of mental health officials. “The goal is treatment and to reintegrate these patients back into the community.”
But DeSchamp said he thinks that goal is crazy.
Martins said the goal of treatment is to reintegrate patients who respond well to treatment into society “to the best of the patient’s ability.”
Guilty but insane?
Ward 3 City Councilor Patrick Paradis said he feels the not-criminally-responsible plea is being used too often, and too successfully, for those committing serious crimes.
“I think it’s being overused and it’s time for citizens to regain their right to live in peace and harmony,” Paradis said Thursday at a City Council meeting.
He said the group home issue makes him recall the 1985 killing of Sharon Taylor, a 15-year-old Cony freshman, by Paul Addington, who was living in a halfway house at Augusta Mental Health Institute after he was committed to state custody.
Taylor’s body was found about a mile from AMHI at the state arboretum, now Viles Aboretum, off Hospital Street.
Taylor’s mother attended Thursday’s council meeting, but did not speak.
The murder prompted the creation, through legislation sponsored by Paradis, who was then a state legislator, of a more strict process for releasing forensic patients. The process, a form of which is still in place today, stipulates that patients’ cases must be reviewed by both state and independent psychiatrists and, if they are to receive more privileges such as unsupervised time, it would have to be approved by a judge.
Paradis said the law has since been watered down.
He suggested residents who want tougher restrictions on forensic patients should talk to their state legislators. He also suggested, if they want to get the attention of legislators and mental health providers, they should seek legislation to create a “guilty but insane” verdict. He said with such a verdict, a patient would get treatment but if deemed successfully treated, would not be allowed to return to society, but would serve a sentence for the crime.
Lack of beds
Stokes and at-large City Councilor Cecil Munson said there is a lack of an adequate number of beds at Riverview to take both forensic patients and mentally ill patients seeking treatment there voluntarily, called civil patients.
Martins said the requirement to treat forensic patients at Riverview creates challenges for the statewide mental health system and periodically Riverview is closed to civil admissions because forensic patients have taken so many of the available beds. He said civil patients in those cases can get services at another site, such as Dorothea Dix or Acadia in Bangor, or Spring Harbor in Westbrook.
“We continue to look at ways to improve our system of care and capacity within the system, though funding challenges remain,” Martins said.
Riverview, which opened in 2004 to replace AMHI, was designed to accommodate 45 forensic patients and 47 civil patients. An Aug. 1 census report listed 57 forensic and 35 civil patients, meaning forensic patients occupy beds on the civil side of the hospital.
Stokes, who as head of the criminal division of the Maine attorney general’s office is often involved in court proceedings regarding forensic patients, said they are getting treatment for their mental illness. He said that makes them less of a concern to him than the potential for a mentally ill person who is going untreated to act out violently.
“What we’re seeing since that decision several years ago to deinstitutionalize (the mental health system) is people aren’t getting the treatment they need,” Stokes said. “It’s the people out there who aren’t getting the treatment they need who are the forensic patients of the future. That’s what frightens me.”
Keith Edwards — 621-5647