State took checks of confined patient

Disability payments sent to agency that held man despite dropped charges

Group will try to get money back

May 22, 2004|By Walter F. Roche | Walter F. Roche,SUN STAFF

Attorneys for a Baltimore County man who has been locked up in a mental ward even though a series of minor charges against him were dropped six years ago have discovered that his monthly disability check of about $400 has been going into the state treasury, apparently to defray the cost of his forced confinement.

Laura Cain of the Maryland Disability Law Center said they discovered that James Dunkes' Social Security disability checks have been going to the state for at least three years. She said Dunkes has been getting only about $40 a month from the government payments.

"The mental health department got itself designated as the representative payee for his checks," Cain said she discovered after looking through records for the 45-year-old man, who has been confined at Spring Grove Hospital Center since 1996.

"The department uses it to pay themselves," she added.

She said her group has disputed the right of the state to take payments sent to patients, but they were unaware that Dunkes' checks were being diverted until recently.

"We are going to try to get that money back," Cain said. She said that as far as she could determine, Dunkes had never given his consent to have the payments sent to the state. She said approval is not necessarily required when a patient's checks were already being diverted to a third party.

Before his confinement at the Catonsville facility, Dunkes' checks were sent to one of his brothers.

In an interview Thursday, Spring Grove Superintendent David Helsel said he was not aware that the state has been collecting the monthly disability payments.

Jean Smith, a spokeswoman for the state Mental Hygiene Administration, did not respond yesterday to requests for comment. Other officials with the agency also failed to respond.

Dunkes, 45, who is partially paralyzed as a result of an auto accident about 20 years ago, was sent to Spring Grove for a mental evaluation in 1996 after his arrest on charges that he took a pair of shoelaces and a cassette from a grocery store without paying. He also got into a scuffle with the arresting officer, according to court records.

In a prior case that was pending at the time, Dunkes had been charged with loitering and possession of a small amount of marijuana.

Spring Grove officials concluded that because of his brain injuries, Dunkes was not competent to stand trial. In 1998, court records show, all charges against him were dropped. Nonetheless, he has remained confined at the hospital in a locked ward.

Dunkes protested his confinement and repeatedly told state officials the charges had been dropped.

State officials responded by stating in a series of letters to court officials that Dunkes' insistence that the charges had been dropped was proof of his insanity.

Helsel said no one informed the hospital that the charges had been dropped and that the first they heard of it was when attorneys from the disability law center filed a suit in Baltimore County Circuit Court demanding his release.

Cain said efforts are under way to find a program for Dunkes where he can get treatment for his physical problems, but not in a locked ward.

She said the disability law center, which represents patients in state institutions, has been trying to stop the practice of the state automatically taking over disability checks from patients.

"Unfortunately it's a relatively common practice," she said, adding that Dunkes' case was different because his confinement was unjustified for at least six years.

She also said that allowing patients to keep their checks would enable them to gain some financial independence upon their release.

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