News Article Details

Vt. Group Questions State Care

Valley News - 9/19/2017


The Vermont Human Rights Commission said the state discriminated against a woman in psychiatric crisis when she was placed in the solitary confinement at a correctional facility instead of a psychiatric hospital.

The commission ruled on Aug. 24 that the state Department of Mental Health, the Department of Corrections, and their umbrella Agency of Human Services, all discriminated against the woman.

Disability rights advocates said this incident is the latest case in an ongoing, well-documented problem in which Vermonters in psychiatric crisis wait days in emergency rooms or other inappropriate settings before they receive inpatient psychiatric care.

The case said the woman, identified only by the initials WM, has a psychiatric disability. In January 2016, she stopped taking her medication for bipolar disorder and experienced an episode of “extreme mania” that led to a confrontation with police, according to the case.

Police took WM into custody and found her to be “a person in need of treatment,” a term that refers to an inmate who has limited self-control, judgment, or discretion as a result of a mental health disorder, according to the case.

A court ordered WM placed in the custody of the Department of Mental Health, and that she be held at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin, Vt., or a similar facility while professionals evaluate her competency and sanity with regard to the corrections process.

Instead, the case said, WM was sent to Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, a women’s jail in the Burlington area. When she arrived, the Department of Corrections placed her in solitary confinement in the so-called Alpha Unit, and her mental condition began rapidly deteriorating.

WM was placed in a Level 1 bed — beds that the state funds in Berlin, Rutland, and Brattleboro, Vt., that are designed for people in psychiatric crisis who may be suicidal or homicidal — about one week later, according to the case documents.

Although her mental state improved when she started receiving psychiatric care, the commission ruled that she was discriminated against when she was placed in the correctional facility, and discriminated against based on the treatment she received at the facility.

Al Gobeille, the secretary of the Agency of Human Services, did not respond to a voicemail or email seeking comment on Friday. Lisa Menard, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, did not respond to an email inquiry. Melissa Bailey, the commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, was out of the office on Friday.

Karen Richards, the executive director of the Human Rights Commission, said these kinds of incidents are a trend in Vermont.

In 2016, the Human Rights Commission found discrimination in a similar case against a patient identified as DC. The commission then sued the state of Vermont, but had to drop the case when DC died, Richards said.

“What we’ve been primarily concerned about here at the commission is the fact that because of the lack of sufficient Level 1 beds in the state, there are folks like WM who are ending up at a correctional facility instead of (in) a psychiatric bed,” Richards said.

She said the state needs to put more money into the mental health system to help solve this problem. She said the Department of Corrections also should “have a better ability to deal with these people in a manner that is more appropriate to their actual needs and that meets the needs of the law.”

Richards expects that the commission will see more cases as time goes on “because the system remains broken and right now correctional facilities are often the only place for these folks to end up going. … The problem hasn’t been solved, and it’s really going to take a lot of work to get it to a point where it’s solved.”

AJ Ruben, a lawyer for Disability Rights Vermont, said the problems WM experienced are part of years-long underfunding of mental health services. He said the state needs to spend more money on community mental health care to solve the problem.


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