What Happened in Glen Burnie

September 16, 1992

When Darrell Cornish walked away from a halfway house this week and held 11 people hostage in a Glen Burnie bank, he rekindled all the fears, suspicions and prejudices people commonly feel toward mental patients and the institutions designed to take care of them. This is the unfortunate consequence of his crime -- that he gave the NIMBYs of the world a reason to shout, "Not in my back yard!" the next time someone proposes a halfway house in their neighborhood.

Yet how can you blame people for being afraid when someone like Mr. Cornish slips through the system unhealed? Crownsville Hospital Center, which recommended the patient's June 30 release, and Omni House, the Glen Burnie halfway house which was supervising his probation, have a responsibility to protect the public as well as treat the patient. They owe an explanation for what went wrong -- especially Omni House, which finds itself surrounded by controversy for the second time in a month. Four weeks ago, another patient was hospitalized after nearby residents accused him of terrorizing young boys. Mr. Cornish, who has a history of mental illness and violence, should not have been able to walk away from Omni House. An investigation of the program, launched by the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, must find out if it is too lax in supervising patients, and if so, what can be done to change this.

The state also should look at how Crownsville doctors determined Mr. Cornish was ready for deinstitutionalization. Health officials petitioned for his release because he had responded to treatment since his transfer to the hospital three years ago; they said he no longer posed a danger to himself or others. Obviously, they were wrong. Perhaps three years is not enough time to judge whether someone so seriously ill has recovered sufficiently to return to society.

Unfortunately, deinstitutionalization will always carry some risk, no matter how tightly it is controlled. Health officials admit they cannot predict with 100 percent certainty what former patients will do. But there is no alternative short of locking people away without hope for recovery, and that is neither humane nor necessary. The fact is that violent incidents involving mental patients undergoing treatment are extremely rare. Chances are, we face a greater danger from people on the street than from those in halfway houses and hospitals. For people who are frightened by what happened in Glen Burnie, that is something to remember before they ask everyone who struggles with mental illness to pay for what Darrell Cornish did.

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