Vt., N.H. chief justices say collaborative approach needed in mental health cases

  • Former chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court John Broderick, left, Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber, and New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Lynn speak before a panel discussion at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center on issues of crime and mental illness in Lebanon, N.H., on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan speaks during a panel discussion on the issues of crime and mental illness at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. Also on the panel are Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber, left, New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Lynn, Deputy Attorney General Jane Young, New Hampshire State Police Major Matthew Shapiro, and Vermont State Police Major Ingrid Jonas.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Orford Police Chief Jason Bachus, left, and Windsor Police Chief William Sampson talk before the start of a panel discussion on crime and mental illness at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center on Tuesday, June 11, 2019, in Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 12, 2019

LEBANON — The top two judges in the Twin States say New Hampshire and Vermont need to do things differently when dealing with people suffering from mental health-related issues who are intersecting with the criminal justice system.

New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Lynn said “with the wisdom of the years,” he has learned that enforcement and punishment on their own are not effective in dealing with people with mental health or addiction issues, and to “lock them up and throw away the key is not the complete answer to the problem.”

“We have seen good progress in a different approach,” Lynn said, referencing the state’s mental health and drug court models, which focus on getting offenders treatment.

But the states can do better, Lynn and Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber said at an event Tuesday evening at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center that brought together top law enforcement and court officials to consider how to change the conversation on crime and mental illness.

Breaking the stigma around mental health so people come forward and seek help before a crime happens is crucial, they said. And Reiber noted that punishing and deterring a person, which is the “historical framework” of the criminal justice system, “doesn’t work with people who are very challenged with mental health problems,” much like it doesn’t help with individuals suffering from substance abuse issues.

“The challenge that we have in the institution that I serve … (is to) try and figure out how we can help to address this problem in a meaningful way that reduces recidivism,” Reiber said.

Both justices said the courts can’t solve the problem on their own. That’s why several stakeholders, including the chief justices, Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan, New Hampshire Deputy Attorney General Jane Young, state police leaders and DHMC officials came together to discuss the topic and the need to be innovative in their approaches.

One way Vermont State Police is trying to shape the situation is by diverting people out of the criminal justice system through a pilot program first launched out of the St. Albans barracks a few years ago. The program, which has since been extended to the Westminster barracks, puts mental health counselors in the barracks to work with troopers as they interact with mentally ill individuals, said Vermont Commissioner of Public Safety Thomas Anderson, who spoke at the event.

“The barracks commander in St. Albans has told me that this has been among the most successful program he’s been involved with in his 17-plus years with the VSP,” Anderson said via email on Wednesday. “Our goal with the program is, to the extent practicable and consistent with public safety, to get mentally ill individuals (who more often than not also have a substance abuse disorder) into treatment outside of the criminal justice system. Thus far, we have found that the embedded counselor, working side-by-side with troopers, has made for better outcomes.”

Vermont State Police Maj. Ingrid Jonas recalled an Upper Valley hostage situation in describing the importance of collaborating with mental health professionals. She was the officer tasked with speaking with a 16-year-old Thetford boy in August 2006 when he held two hostages inside Merchants Bank in East Thetford. She and the teen’s counselor talked him down, and he agreed to let the hostages go, she said. No one was injured.

That case’s roots went even deeper into the subject, as it later emerged he committed the act to get the attention of authorities so he could receive medical treatment for recurring visions of rape and murder, according to a court hearing at the time.

One way to help break down the stigma associated with mental illness was illustrated on Tuesday through large, glossy photographs that lined the hallway outside of the event. As people filed into their seats, many toured the “99 Faces Project,” a months-long exhibit that features 99 portraits split between individuals with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and people who love those with either illness.

Designed by artist Lynda Michaud Cutrell, the exhibit made its way to DHMC through John Broderick, a former New Hampshire Supreme Court chief justice, who is now the senior director of public affairs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. Broderick opened the discussion on Tuesday night and was acknowledged throughout the event for his response to a family mental health tragedy in 2002.

Broderick’s oldest son suffered from severe depression and anxiety and assaulted his father that year. Broderick has since toured schools and spoken as part of an effort to spread awareness about mental illness.

He “didn’t retreat” but instead “leaned in” to the conversation surrounding mental health, said moderator John Kacavas, a former U.S. Attorney in New Hampshire who is D-H’s general counsel.

Donovan, the Vermont attorney general, who has accompanied Broderick on his trips to some schools, also envisioned a redesigned court system, one that’s “based on science, that’s based on data, where we actually use evidence-based screening tools to diagnose people on the front end.”

Young, New Hampshire’s deputy attorney general, was standing in for Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, who has stepped back from his duties following his recent nomination to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. She talked about the impacts certain criminal cases can have on law enforcement officials and the importance of supporting officers who may be suffering in silence.

“I can’t read the names of the videos without being physically ill,” Young said of the titles of materials in internet crimes against children and child exploitation cases. Investigators are forced to look at those videos and view those images. “If we don’t think that doesn’t take a toll on anybody, we are crazy.”

New Hampshire State Police Maj. Matthew Shapiro said his department has since implemented a peer counseling unit to help officers through stressful and traumatic situations.

Bringing together top officials in the state for a forum is commendable, Young said, and “we could be the champions of mental health.”

Following the presentations, a few audience members asked questions of the panel speakers, including a National Alliance on Mental Illness volunteer who said she helped launch the mental health court in Grafton County. Donna Stamper, of Grantham, spoke to Lynn, the New Hampshire’s chief justice, about the need for mental health court participants to have more time with a judge.

Lynn said there is a need for more judge time in several areas throughout the court system, and said Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, supports an increase in the number of circuit court judges in the state.

Reiber, Vermont’s chief justice, also chimed in on the topic of funding. He urged attendees to speak with their federal lawmakers about increasing the amount of money coming out of Washington for mental health.

“I don’t think there is enough funding going into the whole issue of mental health across the country,” Reiber said. “(It’s) a problem that’s not getting enough attention.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.