Lawsuit charges state hospitals hold committed patients too long

Julia Werth / CTMirror.org

Kathy Flaherty, CT Legal Rights Project director.

After months of scrutiny over an egregious patient-abuse case, the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services is now facing a class action lawsuit that alleges committed patients are languishing in state hospitals long after they have been deemed stable because the state has failed to create an adequate system of community-based care.

The Connecticut Legal Rights Project has commenced the suit, seeking broad reform of the state’s mental health system.

The suit is being filed in Superior Court on behalf of patients who have been civilly committed to state mental health facilities and names the mental health department and its inpatient facilities as defendants. It alleges violations of the state Patients’ Bill of Rights and state constitution.

The plaintiffs say the state has failed to protect their due-process rights to a probate court hearing and their statutory civil right to receive services in their communities, rather than in an institution.

“The State of Connecticut has failed to create a mental health system of community supports and services so that committed patients can be discharged to the most integrated setting within a reasonable period of time after patients no longer meet commitment standards,” according to the suit.

People with psychiatric disabilities who are at serious risk for hurting themselves or others or who are gravely disabled may be committed to a hospital without their consent. A gravely disabled person is someone who could be seriously hurt by the inability to address basic human needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, safety and medical treatment, according to the state Probate Courts’ website.

State mental health department officials said they couldn’t say on Friday how many civilly committed patients there were, but said the number would be available next week.

The lawsuit was sent to the state Attorney General’s office, which will represent the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. The suit is expected to be filed in Superior Court next week.

AG spokeswoman Jaclyn Severance said officials are reviewing the complaint and they will respond at the “appropriate time in court,” and couldn’t comment further.

Committed patients can be discharged by doctors, but the state has mandated Probate Court reviews annually, and more comprehensive ones every two years, to check on a patient’s mental state.

Kathy Flaherty, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, said Connecticut is one of a few states that provide for unlimited civil commitments. Many states authorize commitment orders of limited duration (30, 60, or 90 days), she said.

In an annual review, a psychiatrist provides his or her findings to a probate judge. Every two years, the more comprehensive hearing includes appointing a lawyer for the patient, according to the Connecticut Legal Rights Project.

Flaherty said the lawsuit is asking the court to declare the section of state law that calls for the mandatory hearings every two years unconstitutional because of a state Supreme Court ruling in 1977.

In that ruling, the Supreme Court said that committed patients are entitled to a full judicial due-process review as soon as they no longer meet commitment standards, she said.

“Patients in state-operated inpatient psychiatric facilities have a right to be discharged as soon as their present mental status indicates that they are not a danger to self or others or gravely disabled,” according to the suit.

Flaherty said another issue is that the state made a “promise” when it closed down large inpatient hospitals to reinvest in community-based care.

“They haven’t done that adequately, so that means people get stuck in hospitals because there’s no place to go,” she said.

The suit hopes to force the state to develop a plan to establish and maintain a mental health system that has capacity at all levels, with a priority for supportive housing, so that institutionalized patients in state-operated psychiatric facilities can be discharged within 90 days after they are deemed ready.

The suit names a plaintiff, Gloria Drummer, who was civilly committed to Dutcher Enhanced Security Service, which was part of Connecticut Valley Hospital, on Oct. 14, 2016, by a Probate Court judge. Drummer was found not competent to stand trial and not restorable to competency to face certain criminal charges in Superior Court, according to the suit.

Drummer was accused of stabbing a stranger in the head several times outside a West Hartford CVS in September 2015. The victim survived.

On Aug. 2, 2017, the hospital’s treatment team decided Drummer was ready for discharge because she no longer met the commitment standard. But the hospital failed to immediately request a hearing before the Middletown Probate Court.

Drummer had an annual review on Oct. 13, 2017, before a judge in Middletown Probate Court. Both an independent psychiatrist and attending psychiatrist testified that Drummer did not meet the standard for commitment because she was not a danger to herself, not a danger to others, and was not gravely disabled.

Her social worker testified that there was no supportive housing or other residential placements available and that Drummer was on waiting lists with no estimated date for availability, the suit said.

Claud Chong, Drummer’s public defender, said she isn’t facing any criminal charges, though in theory, she could if she were ever restored to competency. To be considered competent a defendant must be capable of understanding the legal proceedings or be able to aid in his or her defense.

Drummer remained at Dutcher as of Friday. That unit is now part of the newly formed Whiting Forensic Hospital, created by an executive order signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy at the end of December. Beds at Whiting Maximum Security were consolidated with those at the Dutcher to create one 229-bed forensic hospital.

In September and October 2017, ten staff members were arrested after a state police investigation of the abuse of a 62-year old Whiting Maximum Security patient. A total of 37 staff members have been placed on paid administrative leave.

As of early January, 23 of the 37 had been separated from state service. The 10 employees who were arrested are among the 23, according to the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

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