AUGUSTA — A state decision last year to move mental health patients, including some found not criminally responsible for violent acts, into group homes in Augusta neighborhoods has prompted a bill that would require the state to notify municipalities before such group homes could open.
Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, L.D. 805‘s sponsor, on Monday noted the transfer of forensic mental health patients into a new Motivational Services group home on Glenridge Drive in Augusta. The patients previously had been housed on the campus of the former Augusta Mental Health Institute.
Local officials learned about the moves of patients to group homes on Glenridge Drive and Green Street from a Kennebec Journal article last August; they had not been notified by the state.
“The Department of Health and Human Services never notified anybody,” Wilson told the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee on Monday. “It was only brought to the public’s attention after a local newspaper published a story. I believe that’s wrong. My bill will ensure we get the respect we deserve and have a seat at the table.”
Patients authorized to live in the group home on Glenridge Drive include Mark Bechard, who was committed to a state psychiatric hospital after killing two nuns and severely injuring two others in a chapel in Waterville in 1996; and Enoch Petrucelly, a Palmyra man committed to state custody when he was found not criminally responsible for stabbing his brother to death in 2008.
The bill would not allow municipalities to prevent a group home from opening within their borders. It would, however, require municipalities to be notified, and give them an opportunity to suggest alternative locations for group homes to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
The final decision about whether to open a group home for forensic patients, and where to open it, still would rest with the department’s commissioner, Wilson said.
State officials have said they closed the group homes on the old AMHI campus in part because patients living there were unable to get federal benefits, such as Social Security disability, to help pay for their care. Moving the patients off the state grounds, which are adjacent to Riverview Psychiatric Center, grant them eligibility for benefits.
Riverview Superintendent Mary Louise McEwen testified neither for nor against the bill during Monday’s hearing. However, she warned that it could make it harder, though not impossible, for the department to place forensic patients in group homes without discriminating against them.
“This (bill) does single out clients found (not criminally responsible) from all other clients the department serves,” McEwen said. “This implies there is something different about them.”
Committee member Rep. Jethro Pease, R-Morrill, said there is something different about those group of patients: They committed crimes against society but were found not criminally responsible.
He noted sex offenders are also identified as a distinct group of prisoners upon their release, and they have to register their place of residence.
McEwen noted that convicted sex offenders are prisoners in the custody of the criminal justice system before they are released, while forensic patients were found not criminally responsible for committing crime, and are clients in the custody of the DHHS commissioner.
McEwen said 80 forensic clients are in the commissioner’s custody — 39 at Riverview, and the rest living in the community under different levels of housing and supervision.
She noted that when forensic patients first are allowed to go to a group home in the community — that’s permitted following court hearings — they are placed under 24-hour, seven-day-a-week supervision and must follow a treatment plan.
McEwen said the commissioner already is required to notify the local public safety officer, such as a police chief, when a forensic patient moves out of Riverview and to a group home.
While McEwen on Monday did not address the Augusta situation specifically, she previously had told Augusta city councilors there was a communication breakdown and she thought the city had been notified of the decision to move forensic patients into group homes in the city. She apologized last year for that notification not taking place.
Wilson said the bill, while prompted by the concerns of Augusta residents about group homes in their neighborhoods, is not just a local bill.
“This is really not as local of an issue as you might think,” Wilson said of the measure, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, and Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta. “There are group homes in this category in other parts of the state. They are largely located in the city of Augusta, but there area a number of other locations.”
Keith Edwards — 621-5647