Part One: Falling Through the Cracks; System Fails to Help Schizophrenic Man
Matthew Staley stands on the front porch of the home where he is now living in Woodstock. While he was homeless, he broke into the Bugbee Senior Center in White River Junction last winter because he was cold. Staley has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
Matthew Staley is escorted out of Windsor District Court in January. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
Harry and Joy Staley, at their home in Rochester, N.Y., last week. “Everywhere in the country today, there’s not enough resources to properly treat the mentally ill,” Joy Staley said. (Guy Solimano photograph)
White River Junction — Matt Staley walked out of the Grafton County jail on Dec. 4, 2012, a free man with nowhere to go. Officials handed him a bag lunch, a winter coat and a piece of paper listing phone numbers of area service agencies. But o therwise, Staley left as he had arrived three months earlier: homeless and schizophrenic.
A Haverhill police officer drove Staley, 37, an hour away, to the bus station in White River Junction, and left him.
Staley’s release from the North Haverhill jail was triggered by a ruling issued the previous day by Judge Timothy McKenna, who presided over a misdemeanor trespass charge filed against Staley.
“The defendant has been found incompetent and not restorable,” McKenna wrote. “Case dismissed.”
Four weeks later, Staley again appeared on the court system’s radar: He was arrested late on New Year’s Eve after he broke into Hartford’s Bugbee Senior Center, seeking shelter from sub-zero temperatures. That incident brought Staley a fleeting burst of notoriety and public sympathy, but then, he seemed to vanish — yet again.
Arrest, release, disappearance, arrest: This had become the cycle defining much of Staley’s life since he was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was a teenager in Rochester, N.Y. A bright kid who liked to read and consulted medical textbooks to better understand his own illness, Staley became increasingly unstable as his disease progressed, his parents recall, often refusing to take his medications. Since leaving home at 24, Staley has spent much of the past 13 years wandering the towns and woods of the Northeast, living off a $1,000 monthly Social Security check, and leaving his elderly parents in fear for his safety.
According to public records and interviews with officials in New Hampshire and Vermont, Staley had been arrested on at least four occasions in the prior year, contacted by police officers at least a dozen other times , and ordered by judges on three separate occasions to undergo psychiatric examination .
The exams usually never happened; the charges were quietly dropped in each case; and Staley, homeless for almost all of his adult life, was released and left to move on to another town.
Staley’s journey across the Twin States in the past 19 months revealed other gaps in the system:
■ Evaluators in New Hampshire did not determine that Staley was incompetent to stand trial until two months after he was arrested for allegedly trespassing at the Woodsville Subway sandwich shop. Unable to come up with $1,000 bail, Staley spent all of that time in jail. In all, Staley spent nearly five months in local prisons — which officials say are ill-equipped to provide services to mentally ill inmates — on charges that were never proven.
■ As McKenna’s ruling reflects, defendants in New Hampshire who have been charged with misdemeanors and deemed both incompetent to stand trial and unlikely to be restored to competence must be released.
■ Although programs have sprung up on both sides of the Upper Valley to help convicted criminals deal with mental health issues, Staley was ineligible once he was deemed unfit for trial. But because he was not considered violent, he was ineligible for the treatment given to people who might harm others or themselves.
“It is a re-occurring problem and I have not heard a good argument to how we address the problem,” said former Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand, who prosecuted one of the cases against Staley. “The intersection of the mental health system and the criminal justice system is not a pretty intersection.”
After his arrest brought public attention to his plight, Staley got enough financial support from local agencies to live for a spell in the nearby Super 8 motel. But, after causing problems there — one day, he left water running in the sink, resulting in minor flooding — he was moved to the nearby Shady Lawn Motel, where he declined to talk to a reporter when approached on a cold afternoon in January.
“I don’t wish to be disturbed, ever,” Staley said through a door in his darkened motel room. “Thank you.”
Then he seemed to vanish. By the spring, Staley had left the motel and neither Hartford police — whose patrol officers had come to know him well, having responded to more than a dozen calls about Staley in three months — nor his most recent public defender had any idea of his whereabouts. They did, however, hold out hope that social service agencies, who are often restricted by confidentiality laws from disclosing their efforts, had somehow steered him in a healthy direction.
Staley’s parents, who live in Rochester, N.Y., have long lamented their inability to care for their son. As of this summer, it had been a year since they had spoken with him. In the spring, they were told by health-care providers that Staley had briefly received in-patient care at a Vermont mental health facility, but had checked out and planned to move to a facility in Burlington. But by July, Staley had not surfaced in Burlington, and his parents, long accustomed to phone calls in the middle of the night from police, were left to once again imagine the worst.
“I have many nightmares about him being frozen on the side of the road,” Joy Staley said in an interview in June. “I fear the call coming that someone found him, or someone thought it was fun to beat him up, and as a parent, you can’t do anything about it.”
Staley’s odyssey is in many ways unremarkable, officials say, a symptom of a failing mental health system and a criminal justice system geared more toward punishing criminals than helping people get back on their feet. Glenn Libby, who supervises the Grafton County jail, said he has four or five inmates in Staley’s situation at any given time, people struggling with mental illness but not deemed enough of a priority to receive the state’s limited resources.
“It was another case where somebody fell through the cracks,” Libby said. “There is no mental health system in place, and he ends up in law enforcement’s laps, because there’s nothing else in play. It’s sad. It’s just the way it is.”
Trespass, Arrest, Repeat
For a year, Staley’s contact with authorities followed a familiar pattern: Staley wore out his welcome at various gathering places: fast food restaurants, recreation centers, hotels. Though he was never violent or threatening, Staley refused to leave when concerned employees finally called police. Before long, officers filed trespass charges, ensnaring Staley once more in the criminal justice system.
In January 2012, for instance, Montpelier police arrived at the town Recreation Center after an employee called to say Staley was refusing to leave.
Montpelier police knew Staley well from similar calls. Officers asked Staley to leave, but he refused, saying he first wanted to take a shower. Police refused. He then asked to speak with the manager, and ignored officers repeated commands to leave. They arrested him, and charged him with misdemeanor trespassing.
Unable to post $2,000 bail, Staley was kept in a police station holding cell until his appearance in Washington Superior Court two days later, court records show. During that hearing, Judge Howard VanBenthuysen ordered Staley to undergo an outpatient mental health evaluation.
The evaluation was scheduled for Feb. 11 at Northeast Correctional Facility in St. Johnsbury,Vt., where Staley was held. But records show it was never completed.
The public court file does not explain the change, and Washington County State’s Attorney Tom Kelly did not respond to several requests for comment. The public defender assigned to represent Staley in the case, Rosanna Chase, is away for the summer and could not be reached for comment, her office said.
Regardless, by Feb. 16, 2012, Staley was scheduled to change his plea, according to court records, an indication that an agreement had been struck and Staley would plead not guilty or no contest to a charge, and receive a sanction, and perhaps a requirement to pursue treatment.
But that never happened. Instead, on Feb. 27, prosecutors dropped the case against Staley, and he was released.
Staley’s freedom was fleeting. He was arrested two days later on another trespass charge, and the case went to the same judge and attorneys.
On March 1, Montpelier police were called to the First in Fitness gym. Staley had bought a membership, but he wasn’t exercising: He had been discovered washing his boots and clothes in the shower stalls, and sleeping in the bathroom.
Gym managers told police they wanted Staley gone, and would refund his membership fee. Staley left, willingly, and police took him back to the station, where they issued him a no trespass order for the gym. After receiving the order, Staley remained in the station’s dispatch area, asking numerous questions of authorities: He argued that, since he had refused to sign the order, it was not legally binding.
“I went to speak with Staley and attempted to answer his questions,” Officer Chad Bean wrote in an affidavit. “While I attempted to answer Staley’s questions, he would talk over me and not allow me to answer his questions. I advised Staley his business was done at the police department and he needed to move along, as he was tying up staff.”
After he repeatedly refused to leave, police issued Staley a second no trespass order — for the Montpelier Police Department. He left, but returned minutes later, according to court documents. Police called a local mental-health agency, the only recorded instance in the past year in which police summoned counselors, according to publicly available documents.
But Staley refused to talk to the counselor who responded, repeatedly interrupting her and saying he didn’t want any help, according to court documents.
Police, saying there was little else they could do, arrested Staley — though this time he was not taken into custody, and instead released Staley and ordered him to appear in court in two weeks.
On Staley’s return to Washington Superior Court, Judge VanBenthuysen scheduled Staley for another mental health evaluation, for April 4, inside the courthouse.
This time, Staley simply didn’t show up for the evaluation. He faced no sanction for his absence, and the screening was not rescheduled: On Aug. 1, prosecutors again dropped the charge against Staley.
But by then, Staley was long gone: He had arrived in the Upper Valley.
Around 4 a.m. on May 10, 2012, Staley walked into the lobby of Six South Hotel in downtown Hanover and asked for a room. Hotel staff members told police that Staley had previously been asked to leave the hotel on several occasions — he had once locked himself inside the men’s bathroom, according to court documents.
Police arrested Staley. He didn’t have $500 to post bail, and was taken to a holding cell at the Hanover police station, and from there to the Grafton County jail, in North Haverhill.
“During this time, Staley was his usual self, rambling on about various things that sometimes made no sense,” Sgt. David Luther wrote in a police report. “He had been talking about listening to beetles and ants talking with each other while in the woods.”
The case was dropped faster than the trespass cases in Montpelier.
According to Lebanon Circuit Court documents, no mental health evaluation was ordered, and, weeks before a scheduled trial on July 10, prosecutor Chris O’Connor dropped the charge, and Staley was released from the jail.
O’Connor did not respond to messages seeking comment. Staley’s public defender in New Hampshire, James Brooks of Orford, declined to comment.
But again, the criminal justice system was not rid of Staley for long — in September, he was arrested for the fourth time in nine months, this time in Haverhill, 40 miles north of Hanover.
In July, shortly after he was released from the Grafton County jail, police issued a no trespass order, banning Staley from entering the Subway sandwich shop in Woodsville, which he had been warned to avoid. But on Sept. 14, he allegedly returned to the eatery and was arrested by Haverhill police.
Staley was arraigned on Sept. 24 in Haverhill Circuit Court, where McKenna, the judge, imposed $1,000 bail, and ordered a mental health evaluation. Unable to post bail, Staley was sent back to the Grafton County jail, where he waited. And waited.
Six weeks later, Staley was finally evaluated by a mental health counselor at the State Hospital in Concord, to see whether he was competent to stand trial. While details of that screening are sealed, court records show that the evaluator from Forensic and Medical Services Division concluded that Staley’s mental illness rendered him unable to understand legal proceedings or assist his attorney.
It would be another month before McKenna, the judge, would formally declare Staley incompetent and free him from jail.
Delays in evaluating and processing defendants when competency is in doubt are an increasing worry in the judicial system, according to Judge Ed Kelly, who oversees New Hampshire’s circuit courts.
Ideally, Kelly said, evaluations would be conducted in a couple of weeks, limiting the time defendants who ultimately will not face charges spend sitting in jail, receiving little, if any, help for their problems.
“It’s not good,” Kelly said of delays in competency evaluations. “It does exemplify why our jails are filled with people with mental health issues. There’s a lot of people like that ... left in jail for a long time without getting treatment. That’s not right.”
Amy Messer, the legal director for Disabilities Rights, a non-profit that advocates for the disabled and mentally ill across the state, agreed.
“We have a very significant concern about the length of time it takes to get a competency evaluation done and have it go through the courts and have them adjudicated,” Messer said. “It is not unusual for it to take months. The jails are very frustrated. They know they are full of people who need mental health services, not incarceration. Some people have referred to county jails as the new mental health system.”
Jeff Lyons, spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Corrections, said officials in the Forensic and Medical Services Division fulfill their legal responsibility to complete all competency evaluations within 45 days of receiving an order, and has no waiting list of defendants waiting to be seen. The agency conducted 313 pre-trial evaluations in 2012, Lyons said.
Delays in getting evaluations scheduled, conducted, and discussed in court are often attributable to procedural delays in court, Lyons said, not the DOC. “The Department of Corrections is doing its part.”
Libby said that, despite upgrades in recent years, his facility is still ill-equipped to treat inmates with mental illnesses. With the opening of the new jail in 2012, Libby has enough space to separate inmates with mental illnesses from the rest of the population, and a physician visits regularly, to make sure inmates are being prescribed the proper medications. Citing confidentiality rules, Libby declined to discuss Staley’s stay in his facility.
But intensive counseling services, which many mentally ill inmates need, are not available, Libby said. And simply being in a jail facility can add to the stress that can trigger problems.
“It’s not counseling, where you have a caseworker looking at the specific issue and trying to deal with the specific issue,” Libby said.
Help, for Some
The evaluator’s ruling posed additional problems for Staley. Being deemed incompetent in New Hampshire does not mean that a person begins receiving help: For people like Staley, in fact, it makes it more difficult.
As McKenna noted in his ruling, a finding of incompetence ends misdemeanor cases.
“It seems counter-intuitive,” said Kelley, the administrative judge. “In more serious cases, it’s even more striking: Once the case is dismissed for any reason, we lose all jurisdiction over that person. It’s incredibly frustrating to see someone who needs help and to realize there is no way for us to assist them. And it’s incredibly frustrating to see people who come into the criminal justice system to get services. People ought not be criminalized.”
In 2011, Grafton County officials launched a Mental Health Court, dubbed ‘Halls of Hope.’ The program is designed to provide treatment, and not incarceration, for repeat non-violent offenders who commit crimes because of an underlying mental health issue. Much like the county’s well-known Drug Court, the goal is to break cycle of recidivism by providing treatment and intense supervision instead of incarceration. A 2005 New Hampshire study found that 46 percent of the state’s prison population has some form of mental illness.
But there’s a catch. To participate in Mental Health Court, participants have to be defendants in an active court case. The idea is that the threat of facing the original criminal charge is part of the incentive for participants to complete the program. That excludes people like Staley who are deemed incompetent to face charges in a criminal case.
“The criminal justice system can’t do anything else,” Grafton County Attorney Lara Saffo said. “We can’t put them through a trial, so I can’t think of any other option I have in the criminal justice system ... It’s tragic, don’t get me wrong.”
But, while essentially too ill to participate in drug court, Staley was not ill enough for authorities to force him to be treated or cared for.
Though incompetent to stand trial, Staley was deemed to not be a danger to himself or others. Absent such a designation, authorities had no power to have Staley hospitalized, or require him to seek outpatient services.
Staley would have to find help on his own, and he seemed unwilling to do so. Staley’s parents, along with police and lawyers, say he tends to be skeptical of authorities and values his independence.
And the New Hampshire mental health system, struggling with budget cuts and inadequate resources that recently prompted The Disabilities Rights Center to file a federal lawsuit, is not well-equipped to reach out to Staley, officials said.
Suellen Griffin, executive director of West Central Behavioral Health, said caseworkers from her agency will try to approach people with known mental-illnesses such as Staley to convince them to seek treatment.
But, even if caseworkers could locate a homeless man who has moved every few months and shown little interest in cooperating with authorities, and then convince him to engage in treatment, there isn’t much they could offer him, Griffin said.
State funding for mental health services was cut for five straight years, before a small increase approved earlier this year. Moreover, a 10-year plan finalized in 2008 to improve community based-care for the mentally ill by expanding housing and hiring teams of counselors, has never gotten off the ground, because of the funding shortfall, Griffin said.
“There are these people that have done enough to get into the criminal justice system, but not enough to get treated, so they slip through the cracks,” Griffin said. “I don’t think that’s uncommon: It’s not big enough to intervene, but it’s big enough go get them involved in the system. It’s not that uncommon that these people don’t get treatment. It’s hard to reach them.”
So, after being found incompetent, all Staley got from the system was a ride: Haverhill police dropped him off at the bus station in White River Junction, where another arrest was only weeks away.
“This has been going on for 20 years,” Matt Staley’s father Harry Staley said from his home in Rochester, N.Y., where he and his wife Joy raised Matt, whom they adopted when he was three months old from the age of 3 months, when they adopted him. (They have a younger son who does not suffer from any mental illnesses.)
Staley’s was a fairly normal childhood, his parents say, until he got to high school. Then, his grades began to slip. Teachers complained about him speaking out of turn and not paying attention, and his parents eventually were forced to place him in an alternative school, where he learned to work with sheet metal. He was diagnosed as a schizophrenic at age 18.
What followed was a blur of hospitals, doctors, therapists, psychiatrists, and medications, which Staley often refuses to take.
“Everything just blew up,” Joy Staley said. ‘You can’t put your finger on anything other than his medication. He has been in many, many hospitals, he’s been diagnosed by many people, been in and out of jail. A lot has happened in his life. It’s unbelievable.”
Schizophrenia, which affects 2.4 million Americans, frequently emerges during a person’s teenage years, and peaks in the 20s, says Doug Noordsy, a psychiatrist and director of psychosis services at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, who spoke generally, and not about Staley. It is typically treated by an array of anti-psychotic medications designed to block dopamine receptors, which can be hyperactive in schizophrenics.
Despite his struggles, Staley was intelligent and, at times bookish: He would spend hours reading medical volumes, saying he wanted to find a cure for his illness. But his interest would flag, and he would move on to something else.
By his mid- 20s, his condition worsened, his parents said. Staley refused to take medications for any significant period of time, and he began smoking marijuana. Conflicts with his parents increased. Although he was never violent, his behavior grew belligerent and they were increasingly unable to help calm him. When Staley was 24, he left home.
Always enamored of the outdoors and a lover of wildlife, Staley started hiking, and made his way north, through the Adirondacks and, after years of wandering, into Vermont.
Joy Staley began keeping a notebook and pen on her night stand. Every few months, she would get a phone call, usually in the middle of the night, from a police officer or social worker in a town she had never heard of, delivering the latest troubling news.
For more than a decade, the Staleys often had little idea of where their son was. They say they have received an education in the workings and gaps in mental health systems across the country. Again and again, Joy Staley said, they have been told by lawyers, police and counselors that their son didn’t want help, but also hadn’t done anything bad enough to force them to intervene.
“All anybody wants to do is get them out — ‘Just move on and we won’t bother you,’ ” Joy Staley said. “Everywhere in the country today, there’s not enough resources to properly treat the mentally ill.”
They have considered making things up, Joy Staley said, telling authorities stories to make them believe their son is violent, in need of more care. But they can’t bring themselves to do that.
“He’s never hurt anyone — I’ve been told that’s almost a detriment to getting care,” Joy Staley said. “If they think he would try to injure anyone or himself, they would try to put him in the hospital. You can’t lie — I’ve thought about saying he’s dangerous. It’s almost ridiculous.”
Staley doesn’t want to move home, and his parents, both of whom are in their 70s, say it probably wouldn’t work out if he did.
“We just can’t handle that,” Harry Staley said. “Sometimes, he’s fantastic, and other times he’s very belligerent.”
As of last spring, it had been more than a year since the Staleys had spoken to their son. Contacted by a reporter, they were unaware that he had tried to break into a Hartford senior center to seek shelter from the cold. The trespassing charge that resulted from the incident seemed to end as the others in the past year: Questions were raised about Staley’s mental health, but prosecutors in Windsor Superior Court ultimately dropped the charge, and Staley was, once again on his own.
Harry Staley said he has been haunted by a conversation he had with his son.
Calling from somewhere in Vermont, Staley told his dad that bought several lobsters from a grocery store, spending $50 that he somehow came up with, in hopes of saving their lives. He released them into a nearby stream, thinking he was setting them free, unaware that fresh water is lethal to the creatures.
“I said, ‘Matt, you killed them, why did you do that?’ ” Harry Staley said. “He was quiet about it. He was probably really hurt.’”
But it would not be the final time father and son spoke. Two weeks ago, their son picked up the phone and called his parents, from his new home in the Upper Valley.
Tomorrow: Matt Staley discusses his journey to the Upper Valley and hopes for the future. Mark Davis can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3304.