Better searches for mentally ill escapees urged Alliance outraged by response from police, hospital

August 23, 1993|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff Writer

When George F. Berry III hopped a fence at Crownsville Hospital Center on July 10, the odds were stacked against him.

He headed into dense woods, where passers-by were unlikely to see him. With temperatures hovering around 100 degrees and without water, police said his chances of surviving more than a few days were slim.

And once he left the psychiatric hospital's grounds, no one looked for him. Nineteen days later, his decomposing body was found off Interstate 97, less than 1 1/2 miles from hospital grounds, by a motorist searching for water for an overheated car.

Mr. Berry's death has led to a state investigation amid criticism from advocates for the mentally ill, furious that a fragile man under state care could wander off and not be pursued.

"The board was unanimous in its outrage over this. It's just inexcusable," said Marguerite Bridge, president of the state Alliance for the Mentally Ill (AMI).

AMI representatives statewide met Aug. 14 to draft a letter to state officials calling for numerous changes.

Police and hospital staff did not search for Mr. Berry after he left hospital grounds, even with the extreme heat. Sgt. Robert Jaschik, who supervises Anne Arundel County's homicide unit, said the 30-year-old Temple Hills man probably died of natural causes, possibly heat exhaustion and dehydration. Police are awaiting a final autopsy report.

Advocates for the mentally ill claim that local police routinely search for the elderly who wander from nursing homes, an assertion confirmed by nursing home administrators, while mentally ill patients are left to wander on their own.

"This is just one more example of how badly mentally ill people are treated," said Sibyl Shalo of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Arlington, Va. "The stigma against mentally ill people is pervasive. It's society that renders these people totally ineffectual, totally useless. It's like, 'Who cares?' "

Maryland State Police spokesman Michael McKelvin said state police are not required to look for an escaped patient unless the patient was ordered by the court, generally for criminal activity, to a psychiatric facility. In that case, the patient would be treated as a fugitive, he said. Mr. Berry, although involuntarily committed, was not court-ordered.

County police said that searching for escaped patients is not their responsibility because psychiatric hospitals are state facilities.

And Crownsville staff members explained that although they search the grounds for missing patients, their responsibility ends there.

Cases such as Mr. Berry's are not uncommon, Ms. Shalo said. Most states are equally lax in how they respond to missing mentally ill people, she said.

In a strongly worded letter to the director of the state Mental Hygiene Administration, which oversees psychiatric hospitals, AMI members have demanded that hospital staff and state or local police actively search for missing patients, rather than waiting for the patients to turn up themselves.

Police should search for the mentally ill with the same fervor they exhibit when trying to find children and the elderly, AMI said. Security devices, such as fences, should be examined to ensure patients' safety. And hospitals need to be staffed to provide adequate supervision.

Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's County Democrat, has called for a separate investigation by state Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini into Mr. Berry's death. Mr. Maloney, who requested the investigation on behalf of Mr. Berry's mother, Joanah, said there are "just too many unanswered questions" about the escape and subsequent death.

Mr. Sabatini promised that the licensing and certification office of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene would conduct a full review into Mr. Berry's escape. "We'll see what we can do to improve procedures in the future, working internally and with state police," he said.

Haroon R. Ansari, the new superintendent of Crownsville, has formed his own task force to review state policies. Its first meeting is scheduled for Aug. 30.

Dr. Ansari, who took over the 340-bed facility the same week Mr. Berry's body was found, said hospital staff followed current policy, which he agreed does not go far enough to ensure patients' safety.

Mental Hygiene Administration Director Stuart Silver said he never realized that state police do not search for most escaped patients. Although state police issue a general broadcast for a missing person, which would alert local police to question anyone meeting the patient's description, they do not mount an active search.

As a former superintendent of Clifton T. Perkins, the state's psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane, Dr. Silver knew that police aggressively sought escapees from that facility. His assumption, he said, was that similar measures were taken for other patients, although he acknowledged that only 10 percent of all psychiatric patients in the state are committed for criminal activity.

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