Man wrongfully held 6 years is free to go

Dunkes, 46, was detained in hospital though charges against him were dropped

May 29, 2004|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

James Dunkes, the Baltimore County man who has been locked up in a state hospital even though charges against him were dropped six years ago, learned yesterday that he is to leave the institution as soon as officials can place him in a program designed to help people with severe brain injuries.

Dunkes, 46, now resides at Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville "on an informal voluntary basis for the sole purpose of eligibility to the Traumatic Brain Injury Waiver Program," states an order signed yesterday by Baltimore County Circuit Judge J. Norris Byrnes.

The judge's order paves the way for Dunkes, who has been institutionalized at Spring Grove since 1996, to be transferred into a program, partially federally funded, that will provide housing and other services for him, said Laura Cain, a staff attorney for the Maryland Disability Law Center, which represents Dunkes.

The waiver program requires that eligible participants be released directly from a state psychiatric facility, so even though Dunkes legally could have left Spring Grove yesterday, he is staying until necessary paperwork is completed.

Cain said it could take four to six weeks before Dunkes is released from Spring Grove. In the meantime, he is free to leave the facility between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily, according to the signed order.

Dunkes, reached by telephone yesterday, said he is thankful for the "day passes" but is more focused on the day he leaves Spring Grove for good.

"I'm happy. I'm going to get out of here now," Dunkes said. "The judge signed the papers. Now I want to get a place to stay. I'm just looking forward to the day when I can leave. Period."

In 1995, Dunkes was arrested on charges of taking a tape cassette and a pair of shoe laces from a grocery store without paying for them.

When he was taken to court on those charges in 1996, the judge ordered him sent to Spring Grove for a determination of whether he was competent to stand trial. Judged incompetent by virtue of his brain injury - suffered when he was struck by a pickup years earlier - he was formally committed to the hospital July 19, 1996.

Charges against Dunkes were dropped in 1998, but Spring Grove Superintendent David Helsel has said no one informed hospital officials.

Procedure review

Dunkes' plight has officials with the hospital and the public defender's office reviewing procedures to see what went wrong.

"Everybody dropped the ball," Maryland Disability Law Center attorney Irene Smith said yesterday after representing Dunkes in court. "The public defender, the courts, the hospital. I don't see, personally, that the state's attorney's office did anything wrong because they don't have the duty to notify. The duty is with the public defender's office to protect their client, the court to notify all relative parties and the hospital to check the facts before they say a patient is crazy or lying."

Maryland public defender Nancy Forster acknowledged yesterday that "mistakes were obviously made in this case," and said her office is reviewing its procedures.

"We really hope that we can work collaboratively with the courts and the hospital to develop procedures that safeguard against this breakdown in communication," she said.

Forster also said her office is checking to see whether other clients are being wrongfully held.

"The minute this case broke, I ordered that our mental health unit check all presently existing clients in the hospitals that are under an incompetence-to-stand-trial commitment, and they are being reviewed to make sure there is no case similar to Mr. Dunkes'," Forster said. "We're checking at all state hospitals, not just Spring Grove."

Smith said that since Dunkes' story was publicized, her office has Received several calls from patients claiming to be in similar situations - allegations they are investigating.

Hospital response

Helsel said he is considering creating a system that would periodically check the status of criminal charges against patients who have been committed there. But he said he thinks the hospital has been unfairly blamed in the Dunkes case and questions whether officials with the Maryland Disability Law Center - which, he says, was involved in the case as early as 1996 - should have been aware of the dropped charges years ago.

Helsel said his office has been inundated with angry callers since Dunkes' story was printed.

"We're a hospital. We're not the courts," Helsel said. "We're treatment providers. The courts need to notify us if there's a change [in a patient's] status."

However, even had Spring Grove officials known charges against Dunkes were dropped six years ago, Helsel said he would not have been released then.

"This man was not going to be able to leave the hospital because he's mentally ill, and until recently was considered too dangerous to be outside the hospital," Helsel said. "In the past six months, his overall behavior and condition have improved, and we are actively looking for a possible community placement, but it'll be difficult because he's going to need a number of wrap-around services."

Meanwhile, Cain won't rule out filing a civil lawsuit on Dunkes' behalf.

"We're taking it one step at a time," Cain said. "We're just trying to get this settled, get him into the community and then take it one step at a time. But we're not ruling it out."

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