Working group still grappling with potential forensic mental health facility

By Andrew Cromarty
October 7th, 2022

In 2011, Hurricane Irene forced the Vermont State Hospital to close its doors for good, leading to a shortage of housing options across the state. More than 10 years later, state leaders and care providers still struggle to provide the housing and care that many psychiatric patients desperately need.

“Unlike most states, we have no forensic facility capability. So, what’s happening right now is that people are generally either held in a state psychiatric facility or in a correctional facility awaiting determinations,” said Sen. Dick Sears, (D-Bennington).

A working group made up of mental health experts, prosecutors, health care professionals, victims’ representatives and individuals with lived mental illness experience have been looking into potentially constructing a forensic mental health facility where violent and repeat offenders with serious mental health conditions can be housed and treated. However, many feel that little progress has been made.

"Unlike most states, we have no forensic facility capability. So, what's happening right now is that people are generally either held in a state psychiatric facility or in a correctional facility awaiting determinations." --Sen. Dick Sears, (D-Bennington)

“Vermont doesn’t have a forensic system of care. Instead, we have a civil mental health system and a criminal justice system, and those systems are separate which some believe allows for gaps,” said a representative from the Vermont Department of Mental Health. “The department has not made any decisions on recommending a facility, nor is there a general consensus among Forensic Workgroup members on building a facility.”

Often prosecutors have to dismiss charges because a defendant is not considered competent and can’t be placed in jail. In many of these cases, custody is transferred to the Department of Mental Health on Orders of Non-Hospitalization (ONH), keeping these individuals from receiving inpatient services.

“I really believe we need a forensic facility because correctional facilities are really not designed for the mentally ill. They’re designed to house violent offenders, but not necessarily those that are mentally ill,” said Sears. “And those that are mentally ill need special treatment and facilities that can both protect the public and themselves from further harm.”

Sears noted that it has been a challenge to get people on the same page about these issues, even those in the working group.

“This forensic working group is fairly large and involves a lot of different people from various walks of life, including both victims of crimes committed by those who are mentally ill and people who life experience includes mental illness. Getting them to agree on certain things has been difficult, and the conflicting attitudes make it easier to avoid discussion and continue doing the same things we’ve been doing,” Sears said.

He added that if the group can’t come to an agreement regarding a new facility, it might become a matter for policymakers.

Sears says that even if a recommendation is reached by the group, the next steps are unclear. The feasibility of a new facility depends largely on how many individuals would qualify for treatment in a forensic facility.

Changes to several statutes in the current system would likely have to happen before an accurate determination could be made, according to a representative from the Vermont Department of Mental Health.

There is additional debate about adding space to an existing correctional facility. But there is disagreement as to whether this would be operated by corrections or the Department of Mental Health. Sears said he would prefer the latter.

The Forensic Working Group was convened by the Department of Mental Health. They meet regularly to examine gaps in the state’s mental health and criminal justice systems and evaluate options for a statewide forensic health system, and review the notification process for non-compliance/inadequacy of Orders of Non-Hospitalization (ONH).

They are scheduled to present a report to the state legislature in January, who will then hold hearings before any decision about a facility are made.

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