The Addison County prosecutor, State's Attorney David Fenster, agreed that "these are individuals who are not legally responsible for their conduct." He said he had seen three recent cases in which a defendant had to be released due to gap in state programming.
The commissioners of the departments of Mental Health and of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living both urged caution when it was suggested that their agencies take responsibility for treating criminal defendants with traumatic brain injuries.
Mental Health Commissioner Paul Dupre said staff at the state's psychiatric facilities have specialized training to deal with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder but are not trained to deal with the broad range of conditions that can result from traumatic brain injuries, including memory loss, impulsiveness and loss of cognitive function.
He added that his department has struggled to find beds for the people it already has in its custody, especially since the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury was closed by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Some people in mental health crises have been held under guard by sheriffs' deputies in hospital emergency rooms for days while waiting for an open bed in the mental health system.
DAIL head Susan Wehry said her department deals with people on a voluntary basis and does not have the authority under law or the capacity to place anyone in secure, locked facilities.
Some committee members expressed impatience with the commissioners' reticence.
"Sometimes we have state agencies come and say, 'Gee, that's not our role,' and then we say, "Well, we're going to make it somebody's role,'" said Rep. Richard Marek, D-Newfane.
The Addison County woman said she's optimistic lawmakers will address the problem. But after Friday's hearing she said she was discouraged. "Everybody's just passing the buck," she said.