Locking up the mentally ill

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  April 3, 2014

The Labontes contest some of the details in the DHHS reports on Michael’s childhood — reports to which he gave me access. One report asserts, “He broke his three-year-old sister’s legs after a rage.” Not so, the Labontes said; he never hit Brandi or them.

But they soon discovered he wasn’t normal. He could go weeks or months without problems, but then came the savage outbursts when he was frustrated that continue to the present and define Michael’s mental illness.

He was “destructive with things,” Judy said — and with himself, slamming his head, smashing a fist through a stained-glass door. Two episodes of fire-setting caused the state to send him, at the age of eight, to his first psychiatric institution, Jackson Brook Institute in South Portland, now Spring Harbor Hospital.

The Labontes blame Michael’s psychological problems partly on the psychiatric institutions he was in from eight to almost 18. “That’s what turned him,” Larry said — made him worse. He described with disgust Michael being prescribed nine drugs at eight years old.

NO PLACE BUT PRISON

By all accounts, Michael’s youth in the many institutions that held him was a nightmare — for him and for those taking care of him.

Besides Jackson Brook, he spent time at Spurwink in Brunswick, a residential treatment center. Reports say he ran away, broke windows, and assaulted a staff person — the latter act sending him to the Maine Youth Center for a stretch.

He spent several years at a Massachusetts home for severely disturbed youngsters, where he reportedly broke a staff person’s nose, but he also did well in school, a “model for his peers,” as a report reads. At 17, he was at a mental-health center in New Hampshire, where he is reported to have punched and bit staff members and experienced “intense sadness, anger.”

In 2000 he left a Spring Harbor stay for the Labontes, after being taken off all his medications, he told me in one of our talks at Riverview. On December 29, when he turned 18, he was free of DHHS custody. In January he asked Robin if he could visit her. “But he never came back after that,” Judy said.

He quickly got in with a small-time-criminal, druggie crowd on the streets of Lewiston. He told me he didn’t know “how to survive in society.”  It only took weeks before he was arrested for snatching a purse, helping other youths break into a car, and robbing a $55 check from a mentally disabled man, using a cigarette lighter shaped like a gun. The victim couldn’t say if Michael was the one who roughed him up.

From the beginning Michael admitted everything, and he pleaded guilty. Justin Leary, his attorney, told the judge that he couldn’t offer an alternative to incarceration. He said there was no room for Michael at the Augusta Mental Health Institute (AMHI), which Riverview replaced a few years later.

His DHHS caseworker, Kelly Davis, wrote the court: “I would urge for Michael to be put in a secure, staff-intensive facility, perhaps a psychiatric facility, for the duration of his life.” But the judge, Superior Court Justice Robert Crowley, concluded at the sentencing: “He has had all that we have to offer as a society. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have more.”

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