Lawsuit Claims Maine Ignores The Mentally Ill
Cities and others sue the state, saying it must provide more services for released patients
ABOUT three years ago, Portland police chief Michael Chitwood and his officers noticed a growing problem on the streets of this picturesque port city in Maine.Skip to next paragraph
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"What we started to see in the last several years has been an increase in the number of calls that our officers are responding to for people in some type of trauma situation," Mr. Chitwood says. Police encountered people threatening suicide, setting fires, or just walking along the street screaming.
The officers would often send the individuals to doctors to determine if they should be cared for at two state-run institutions: the Augusta Mental Health Institute and the Pineland Center for the mentally retarded. In most cases, "doctors were streeting the people," Chitwood says. If they were referred to the state facilities, they were usually soon released. "Some of these clients we've dealt with 20 or 30 times in the course of a year."
Chitwood began to meet with the city manager about the issue. But after he read a series of articles in the local paper focusing on a retarded man who begs for food, steals from local shops, and prostitutes himself, he decided he had to do something.
"What infuriated me was that ... the mental-health experts were saying this was the cutting edge of treatment in the state of Maine," Chitwood says. "I went to my boss, the city manager, and told him I felt that as a matter of public safety we had to bring this issue to the forefront and we should sue the state."
That's what Chitwood did. Now he and the City of Portland have been joined in the lawsuit by an unusual coalition, including two counties, two cities, a town, several individuals, and a homeless shelter. The plaintiffs charge that the state does not provide enough community services for those deemed mentally ill who have been released from state institutions.
"We're not against deinstitutionalization," the police chief explains. "What we are against ... is deinstitutionalizing people with few community resources. You can't put people on the street who can't fend for themselves."
Deinstitutionalization started in the 1960s, when states began releasing thousands of patients committed to warehouse-like environments, says John Rosser, the commissioner of Maine's Department of Mental Health and Retardation in the 1970s and now the executive director of the Spurwink School for mentally retarded individuals here.
The theory is that it is more humane and cost-effective for those diagnosed as mentally ill and retarded to live on their own in society than to languish in institutions if they are not considered a danger to others. Many states have significantly downsized their mental-care facilities or even closed them.
"It has been a trend for years," Dr. Rosser says. "I think the issue now in Maine is that they're getting to the point where you have your more extreme individuals [who may be deinstitutionalized], and people are concerned whether they can be dealt with in the community appropriately."
The Augusta Mental Health Institute, which has about 207 patients, will reduce its size to 70, plus a forensic unit, by 1995. The Pineland Center, with about 200 residents, will eventually be phased out.
In other cities and states across the country, litigation to force governments to provide better services for those deemed mentally ill has been brought by "do-gooders" - human-service or advocacy groups, says Robert Hayes, one of two lawyers handling the case for the plaintiffs.
This lawsuit is "unique in that for the first time the plaintiffs include not just the mentally ill people in distress and not just the do-gooders, but local governments and businesses," Mr. Hayes says.