AUGUSTA, Maine — A legal dispute over where a severely mentally ill patient who twice attacked staff members at Riverview Psychiatric Center belongs has reignited a long-standing debate about whether Maine needs to open a new high-security psychiatric hospital and if so, who should run it.

After Wednesday’s court hearing in Kennebec County Superior Court regarding an assault charge against Anthony Reed, the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Maine — a leading advocacy group — called on the state Department of Health and Human Services to create and oversee a forensic hospital to treat Maine’s most violent patients.

Reed, who attacked Riverview staff members in 2012 at the hospital and in 2014 during an interview at Kennebec County Jail, has been held at times at a mental health unit at the Maine State Prison in Warren, which NAMI contends is against the law and improperly criminalizes a mental illness.

“Looking for a connection back to his humanity, Anthony’s focus was on being able to attend groups and have a life outside of a small jail cell,” reads a NAMI news release. “He has been shackled anytime he has left his jail cell for over a year. … He is a person living with a serious mental illness, not a criminal. He deserves far better than the state of Maine has provided.”

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in a written statement that Democrats — along with NAMI — were to blame for not supporting a solution to the problem that was proposed by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration earlier this year.

“We’re pleased that NAMI finally supports our proposal to create a separate, secure forensic facility for highly violent psychiatric patients, but where were they when this proposal was recently put before the Legislature? … We wish that NAMI would more appropriately direct their concerns to the lawmakers who have opposed and obstructed this proposal, instead of politicizing this serious concern and challenge,” said Mayhew.

The bill Mayhew refers to is LD 1428, which failed along mostly party lines in June. The bill sought to appropriate about $1.5 million a month to create a “Forensic Treatment Fund” with which DHHS would seek a private contractor to care for violent patients who have been found not criminally responsible for crimes because of their mental illnesses.

Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, who co-chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, said LD 1428 was proposed in the final days of this year’s session and there wasn’t enough time to consider the implications or have crucial questions answered. Gattine said he attempted on the House floor to have the bill sent back to the committee for more work and carried over until next year for consideration, but his motion was rejected, mostly by Republicans.

As a result, the bill died.

“If you looked at the content of that bill you never would have known what they were proposing,” said Gattine. “They were proposing spending $18.5 million a year so we could outsource forensic services to some outside entity. … It was unclear how it was going to be overseen and regulated, or how people’s rights under the law and the Consent Decree would be protected. We had a lot of significant questions that we needed answers for before we moved forward.”

Gattine said he tried to return the Legislature’s attention to the problem with the submission of a bill for the upcoming session that begins in January that would have asked DHHS for a detailed proposal. That bill was blocked with a 5-5 party-line vote last week by the Legislative Council, a committee of legislative leaders, which among other things decides which bills move forward in the second, shorter legislative session.

“Let’s start planning a solution to this problem based on what we need,” said Gattine. “The idea that someone who has gone through a court process and found to be not guilty [because of mental defect] can then be turned over to the corrections department, anyone who cares about civil rights and personal liberty should be very concerned about that.”

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, who co-chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, also blamed Democrats for blocking LePage’s initiative.

“The Republicans on the committee were ready to move forward on it and do it,” he said. “We thought it was necessary to address this long-standing, acute problem at Riverview, but the Democrats argued that they didn’t feel they had enough information.”

Disability Rights Maine testified during the committee process that they also had a series of unanswered questions that had to be answered before they could support the proposal.

In its release Wednesday, NAMI also criticized a proposal to send Reed to an out-of-state private forensic facility as the wrong approach and an example of DHHS failing to live up to its responsibility.

“The state of Maine will spend thousands of dollars supporting a for-profit correctional facility rather than developing the capacity to serve Mainers with serious mental illness right here at home,” the release states.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.