Planning efforts for new Vt. mental health facility bogged down

Published: Jul. 14, 2022 at 6:21 PM EDT
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WATERBURY, Vt. (WCAX) - More than a decade after the closure of the Vermont State Hospital and eight years after the opening of its replacement, the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital, the state continues to struggle with a shortage of beds to treat mental health patients. Now, a working group tasked with addressing the problem has bogged down, according to some observers.

The state has been puzzling for years over how to house and treat Vermonters who are falling through the cracks, people found innocent by reason of insanity, or who are not competent to stand trial.

“It’s clear that those cases need to be dealt with. The public needs to be protected as well as the individuals involved,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington.

The state has been exploring the feasibility of a new facility where the state can house and treat repeat or violent offenders experiencing mental health challenges, a step between psychiatric facilities and less restrictive mental health facilities. A working group made up of mental health experts, prosecutors, corrections officials, victims’ families, and those experiencing mental illness have been working on the issue, but it has been slow going to some participants.

“We haven’t unfortunately been able to reach consensus on anything,” said Karen Barber with the Department of Mental Health. She says many of the topics are deeply personal and people have strong beliefs. “It has been really difficult to even just begin the discussions, to say can we at least identify there may be some pros and some cons.”

Vermont Mental Health Commissioner Emily Hawes was not available for an interview but said that people experiencing mental health challenges are more likely to be victims than the general population.

The working group’s final recommendations to lawmakers were due next month but that date has now been pushed back to January.

“On the big issues, I thought we were moving in similar directions,” said Vermont Defender General Matt Valerio. He says progress was being made in more robust community supervision programs and notification of victims and prosecutors when people are released. But he says even if a new facility is built, there will always be crime. “When it comes to human behavior and mental illness and the like, things are not always predictable.”

Lawmakers say the debate is part of a system under stress that includes short-staffed designated agencies, mental health patients too often left waiting in emergency rooms, declining juvenile mental health, and staffing shortages in corrections.

“The Agency of Human Services needs to step up, needs to come up with some plans and we need to get moving on it in the next session of the Legislature,” Sen. Sears said.

Sears says if the group is unable to reach recommendations on a potential facility, lawmakers might have to take the matter into their own hands.

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