AUGUSTA — Some city officials are concerned the safety of residents could be at risk by a state plan to move mental health patients — many deemed not criminally responsible for committing violent crimes — into homes in the wider community.

The affected group of patients lives on the campus of the former Augusta Mental Health Institute.

City Councilor Patrick Paradis said he first learned the group homes were closing and the patients being moved by reading about it in the Kennebec Journal on Sunday. He was angry the city didn’t receive notice of the plan.

He said the move would put patients who committed violent crimes in Augusta’s residential neighborhoods.

“This is a public safety issue,” Paradis said. “These aren’t just mentally ill patients, they’re criminals. And it’s not a question of stealing a gallon of milk from Cumberland Farms — some have committed murder, manslaughter… people have died and been severely injured. And some of these people are going to be walking around Augusta unescorted. When are they going to lose control again?”

At Paradis’s request, city councilors will discuss the issue with Riverview Superintendent Mary Louise McEwen at their meeting 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Augusta City Center.

City Manager William Bridgeo also said he was disappointed the city wasn’t notified of the coming move from on- to off-campus housing for some forensic patients.

“Nobody knew about it — the police department wasn’t advised, nor was my office, nor the mayor or council,” he said. “That was disappointing, that with something as potentially impactful as this, we’d first learn about it through an article in the newspaper.”

State officials contend there have long been forensic patients — patients deemed not criminally responsible for committing violent crimes because of mental health issues — released into the community once it’s determined by both psychiatrists and a judge that their release won’t present an increased risk to the public. The new living and supervision arrangements are neither very far from where they are now, nor any less secure, they say.

At issue is the state’s plan to close three group homes on the former AMHI campus on Hospital Street on the city’s east side, and move the 16 residents there now, as well as patients who might otherwise go to one of the three group homes. Two new group homes off the campus grounds are planned, at 22-24 Green St. and 14 Glenridge Drive.

Motivational Services, a nonprofit agency, provides housing and other services to between 26 and 28 forensic patients.

The 5 percent

One of the first occupants of the 14 Glenridge Drive home — off Hospital Street on the same short, dead-end street as a nursing home, day care center and large apartment complex — could be Enoch Petrucelly. The Palmyra man, who lives in the forensic section of Riverview Psychiatric Center, was committed to state custody when he was found not criminally responsible for stabbing his brother to death in August 2008.

Justice Donald Marden recently granted a request from Petrucelly’s attorney for him to live at the new eight-bed home.

Paradis said mental health officials may assure the public that such patients are on medication and under control and “that may be true 95 percent of the time.”

“But in the other 5 percent of the time, it could lead to another murder, like Sharon Taylor,” he said.

Taylor was a 15-year-old Cony freshman killed in 1985 by Paul Addington, who was living in a halfway house at AMHI after he was committed to state custody. He was acquitted by reason of insanity in connection with three previous attacks on women, according to published reports.

Taylor’s body was found about a mile from AMHI, at the then-state arboretum off Hospital Street, which is now known as Viles Arboretum.

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, 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.

The state is closing the three group homes on the old AMHI campus in part because patients living there are unable to get federal benefits, such as Social Security disability, to help pay for their care, according to McEwen. If they move off the state grounds, which are adjacent to Riverview, they gain eligibility for benefits.

Giving up a step

Augusta Mayor William Stokes is sometimes involved in state court hearings regarding forensic patients’ requests for off-campus and other privileges as the head of the criminal division of the Maine attorney general’s office. Stokes said forensic patients have been in the Augusta community for decades, and they aren’t allowed increased privileges unless a judge determines doing so would not increase the risk to the public, or the patient.

What’s new is the elimination of the on-campus homes as part of the process of incremental steps of increasing privileges and responsibility, he said.

“What you give up, and what’s a concern for us, is you give up that incremental step of a group home on campus, before you take another incremental step,” Stokes said. “We advocate those steps be small.”

Even so, “I have no evidence there is increased risk to public safety of a group home with essentially the same level of safety and security, one on and one off campus,” he added. “That’s a court decision.”

Stokes said it is impossible to eliminate all conceivable risk.

McEwen said in some ways the new off-campus sites could be more safe, not less. She said they’re going from three on-campus group homes with 16 patients spread among them to two homes, with eight patients in each. With the same number of staff there now, that means a higher staffing level in the two off-campus homes.

She said the doors will be monitored, there will be security cameras in the parking lots and the buildings will be under staff supervision 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

McEwen said the state’s assertive community treatment team can be on hand at the residences in minutes and is also available all day and night.

“We’ve been doing this a long time,” McEwen said. “If there is any indication by group home staff or our ACT team there is an issue or problem, that they might be slipping psychologically, we have the ability to immediately pull them back into the hospital. It’s similar to bail conditions; there are very tight controls.”

 

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