A lifelong cry for help ends in an isolated jail cell

January 12, 1992|By Jackie Powder

Deaf, troubled and homeless, 19-year-old Paul Andrew Chapman probably didn't belong in jail.

But he died there, apparently by his own hand. He was found in his cell at the Howard County jail in Jessup at 3:20 p.m. Dec. 20, hanging by a sheet from a window grate.

The young man was in jail for the second time, awaiting trial for allegedly making bomb threats to Howard Community College on a Teletype machine for the deaf.

The bomb threats had only been the latest and most serious incident in a life marked by expulsions from schools, violent behavior and failure, although by many accounts Paul Chapman had been a bright, likable young man with goals. But deafness, emotional problems and family conflicts combined to be too much for him -- or for anyone else.

His parents, no longer able to handle their young, disruptive son, decided in November that he could no longer live at their home in Savage. The social services system had fared little better.

"Every agency had been involved in trying to help him help himself, but he chose not to let it work," said a caseworker with a Columbia agency that locates state services for the disabled.

"He [had] been in the system for a very long time," said the caseworker, who worked with Mr. Chapman for three years and who did not want to be identified.

Others say that Mr. Chapman spent nearly seven months in 1991 jail because the system had no provisions for helping someone with such a difficult combination of problems.

"It's a case study in defendants for whom there doesn't seem to be a place in the system," said Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, who had taken the unusual step of writing to Nelson J. Sabatini, secretary of health and mental hygiene, to try to arrange treatment for Mr. Chapman.

"Incarceration was not the answer for Paul Chapman. He needed something more," Judge Sweeney said. "Unfortunately, the last resort is often being picked up and taken to a jail. That's a sad, sad reality for multihandicapped people with men tal illnesses."

Connie Lewis, Howard County's special education coordinator, said that a young Chapman had tried to get himself thrown out of schools by running away, breaking windows and streetlights, and throwing pebbles at other students.

"I can only guess that the kid was crying for help," she said of the turmoil in his final year. "Paul was in a home situation that was unbearable for him. He wanted out and didn't know how to get out."

Others who knew Mr. Chapman also say his family life was unsettling. His father was very ill and his mother worked two jobs. Family arguments were frequent.

Peggy Chapman said difficulties for her son, who had been deaf since infancy, started in early childhood.

At Freetown Elementary School in Anne Arundel County, he was in a class for hearing-impaired students where he displayed behavioral problems. Later, he attended the Maryland School for the Deaf in Columbia, but he was expelled at 14 when he became "very uncontrollable," she said.

Two private schools in New York and Pennsylvania expelled him for disruptive and aggressive behavior.

"He was out of control," Peggy Chapman said. "We're almost 50 years old. We tried everything to help him."

'Wouldn't get it off his chest'

Jane Norwood, who for many years taught Mr. Chapman in a Sunday school class for hearing-impaired students at the First Baptist Church of Laurel, said the young man never discussed the sources of his anger.

"He was angry about something, but he wouldn't get it off his chest. He wouldn't tell anybody," said Ms. Norwood, who herself is deaf.

Mr. Chapman apparently had also been unwilling to take advice from people who cared about him. "I think he just didn't want to listen," she said. "The last time I saw him, I said, 'You and I have to obey the law. There's no way around it.' "

In April 1990, he was admitted to Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville, where he was diagnosed as having a conduct disorder and placed on medication.

Mr. Chapman was released seven months later after turning 18 and when the hospital changed its diagnosis to anti-social personality, according to a letter from his public defender, Richard Bernhardt, to Judge Sweeney.

Back home, Mr. Chapman's behavioral problems continued. He threatened a neighbor with a knife, his mother said. And when a caseworker arranged for him to stay in a respite home for one day a week -- to give his family a break -- he set a fire in the neighborhood because he became upset and got expelled from the home.

'An engaging person'

But some who knew Paul Chapman say he had another side.

"Once you got around the initial difficulty where he treated you like the enemy, he was an engaging person, surprisingly bright and articulate in his own way," said Mr. Bernhardt, the assistant public defender. "A lot of him wanted to please and wanted to do good, but circumstances did not allow.

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