Omni House shouldn't be blamed for actions of unfit patients, some say

September 28, 1992|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff Writer

Two weeks ago, a 26-year-old mental patient from a Glen Burnie rehabilitation program walked into a local bank and held 11 people hostage at knifepoint for four hours.

Four weeks earlier, a patient from Omni House who had once been charged with child sexual assault was forced by police to undergo a psychiatric evaluation after allegedly offering neighborhood boys money to accompany him into nearby woods.

Omni House is now being investigated by the state and could lose its license to operate, but some mental health activists and professionals say the blame may lie with the state and courts, which release unfit patients to community-based programs.

"I read the stories, and it's sad but certainly not surprising," said Peter Taylor, a former residential director at Omni House.

"There are a lot of people in the program who shouldn't be there. Most of the time, clients are pretty much on their own. There's just not a real lot of supervision."

Joseph DiLiberti, vice president of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Anne Arundel County, said he thinks Omni House works well for certain types of mentally ill people, but to be completely successful, the program must screen out those who don't belong.

"My first reaction to hearing about the hostages was, 'Why was he in the program?' " said Mr. DiLiberti, who has a mentally ill son and has been active in AMI for five years. "That's just the wrong person for the program."

That "wrong" person -- Darrell T. Cornish, who was living in a rented apartment in Americana Southdale in Pasadena -- had been released from Crownsville Hospital Center 10 weeks earlier.

Staff members there said he was no longer a danger to himself or others, and he was assigned to the Glen Burnie program under the condition he continue outpatient psychiatric treatment and taking anti-psychotic medication.

In 1984, Mr. Cornish had robbed an Annapolis bank, taking a teller hostage at knifepoint and stealing $16,000.

Two months after being placed in Omni's program, he walked into the Bank of Glen Burnie, knife in hand, and held 10 bank employees and one customer in the bank vault.

The episode ended when Mr. Cornish was shot in the shoulder by a police officer. He is being held at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center without bail.

Michael Golden, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said a team of state investigators is examining Omni House programs and policies to determine what, if any, changes need to be made.

The investigation is expected to wrap up this week, he said.

Lois Miller, director of Omni House and one of the program's founders, would not comment during the state's investigation.

She did say that staff members followed all program policies in weeks preceding the incidents and that both individuals involved received the appropriate amount of supervision.

"We didn't do anything wrong," she said in an interview Thursday. "We did exactly what we were supposed to do."

But some mental health activists familiar with Omni's program said that there is little the Glen Burnie facility can do, given the state's policy on deinstitutionalization.

Thomas Schulz, president of Anne Arundel County's AMI, said the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is required to discharge as many patients as possible as quickly as possible.

Programs such as Omni House, which operate as private, non-profit institutions but receive considerable state funding, have little discretion regarding whom they take, he said, even though the programs were set up to serve mentally ill patients who are not dangerous and generally function well in the community.

Mr. DiLiberti agreed. "They have no discretion whatsoever -- no way to turn down these violent people," he said.

"I don't fault Omni House at all. I think it's a good program. I say the cause of this problem is the governor, the legislators and [Health Secretary] Nelson Sabatini, who set up this situation. Some of these people should just not be out."

Dr. Stuart B. Silver, director of the state's Mental Hygiene Administration, said the state's general policy regarding the mentally ill is "to help people in hospitals who don't need hospital care to live in the least restrictive environment possible."

The goal of that policy is to shift as many patients as possible into programs such as Omni House, which has 63 client beds scattered in apartment complexes in northern Anne Arundel County.

But, Dr. Silver added, the state's policy does not mean that patients who are dangerous to themselves or others are routinely "dumped out of hospitals."

In fact, he said, incidents such as those at Omni are relatively rare.

"Our recidivism rates [for patients with criminal histories] tend to be much better than the criminal justice system," he said.

"I just don't think there are many people who are released incorrectly. The fact is most mentally ill people are not at all dangerous and make very good neighbors."

Mr. Sabatini said that no program is forced to take clients from state hospitals. "I think we've had some very unfortunate situations and we're looking into doing whatever we can to make sure all the proper safeguards are in place," he said.

"But let's not tear down a whole program where there are 4,000 people whose quality of life has been significantly improved."

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