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home : news : regional August 1, 2014

1/18/2014
VermontHouse Considers Brain Injured Defendants Law

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) -- Since a teenager accused of raping her son was found incompetent for trial due to a traumatic brain injury and released, one Addison County woman has lived in fear, she told lawmakers Friday.

"He can come up to my house and do anything he wants right now. There's no protection at all right now for my family," said the woman, who is not being named because her relative was the accuser in a sex crime case. The Associated Press generally doesn't name people who say they've been sexually assaulted.

The woman's comments came at the close of a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, whose members heard from a range of officials that Vermont has no program set up to deal with traumatic brain injury sufferers who violate the law.

When people with a mental illness or developmental disability commit crimes, they can be placed in custody of the state. But traumatic brain injury is neither considered a mental illness nor a developmental disability under the law, leaving a gap in state services. There's also concern it may be becoming increasingly prevalent, especially among military veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Legislation before the committee would commit a defendant ruled incompetent to stand trial due to traumatic brain injury to the Department of Mental Health.

Lawmakers were told that they should consider the injured before acting.

"We have to look at these people in a compassionate way," said Defender General Matt Valerio. "These are not criminals by choice."




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.







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