Linda Schwartz, co-chair of the Whiting Task Force

Jill Kidik was stabbed repeatedly in the arms, hands and shoulder as she fought for her life after a woman later deemed innocent by reason of mental defect stabbed her twice in the neck, splitting her trachea almost in half the morning of May 17, 2018, she said.

That was the last day she wore a uniform as a Hartford police officer, Kidik wrote in her testimony to the Public Health Committee Monday. It was also the last day “I woke up as a whole person,” she said.

Kidik and others whose lives were irrevocably changed by an act committed by an individual suffering from severe mental illness are opposing portions of SB 450, a bill which would revamp practices at Whiting Forensic Hospital after a patient abuse scandal in 2017 resulted in the arrests of nearly a dozen state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services employees.

The proposed law was based on the recommendations of a task force formed by the legislature in 2018 that was charged with looking at the conditions, culture and operations of Whiting Forensic Hospital and Connecticut Valley Hospital which house patients with the greatest mental health needs.

The proposed legislation would require the state to build a new facility to replace Whiting Forensic Hospital with input from families and guardians of those who have been committed there and other people with lived experience. The proposed law would also require DHMAS to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the needs of all patients, and examine the safety and standard of care for treatment in the new facility.

The bill would also beef up the current advisory board that is supposed to be overseeing Whiting Forensic Hospital and create an oversight board that would investigate complaints of patient abuse and neglect, and form a task force to determine if the state’s Psychiatric Security Review Board is still needed.

Many of the patients at Whiting Forensic Hospital have been found innocent of crimes including murder and serious assault by reason of mental defect or mental disease. Instead of being sentenced to prison, they were sentenced to a secure mental health facility for treatment until such time that they can possibly recover and return to the community. The maximum term of commitment is usually commiserate with what their prison sentence would have been for the crime, said Monte Radler, a public defender who works within the state’s insanity defense unit.

Those who have been committed to Whiting and CVH by the courts are under the purview of the state’s Psychiatric Security Review Board which reviews reports on individuals committed to a mental health facilities through the courts every six months and holds a hearing every two years on each person under their oversight to determine if they are in the correct level of care.

But Radler and others said, patients can wind up trapped in the system, spending years beyond the court’s intended commitment because the PSRB has repeatedly declined their requests to be released to the community.

The need for the new building is obvious, said Whiting Forensic Hospital task force co-chairs Linda Schwartz, an associate clinical professor of Nursing at Yale University, and Michael Lawlor, a former legislator and state Office of Policy and Management Undersecretary of Criminal Justice who is now a professor of Law at the University of New Haven.

“If you go there it’s like walking back into the 1960s,” Schwartz said during an informational session held on the task force’s recommendations before the public hearing on the bill Monday.

“I’ve been in every prison in Connecticut many times,” Lawlor said. “I don’t think this place would be appropriate for a prison.”

In addition to a new building, the task force acknowledged that there had to be a change in culture and mission otherwise the claims of abuse would continue. “Unless you look at all of the recommendations we’ve made, changing the building won’t work,” said task force member Nancy Alisberg. The task force agreed that having the PSRB review cases every two years was too long, Schwartz said. The task force report also indicated that the majority of members thought the PSRB should be disbanded, leaving the decision on when to release patients up to clinicians at the hospital.

But prosecutors and people who were impacted by violent crimes committed by people who are severely mentally ill are against the plan to review if the PSRB is still needed and against a provision in the law that would allow the hospital to determine if the person is eligible for a short period of release.

“Many of us are at great risk ourselves, having been previously specifically threatened,” said Ingrid Justin, whose 21-year-old daughter Johanna Justin-Jinich was shot and killed in 2009 in a Wesleyan University café by a man who is now housed at Whiting Forensic Hospital. “These are not theoretical threats or free speech. The man who killed Johanna has a proven track record of following through on his threats.”

Justin said in her written testimony that there is “absolutely” a need for the PSRB which is an independent review board that is separate from the hospital system and pressures. “The PSRB, with 37 years of experience, represents the interests of the community at large as well as victims and ensures adequate plans for successful patient transition into the community,” Justin said. “More importantly, the PSRB is a known and tested entity. S.B. 450 unnecessarily recreates a system that already works very well at weighing competing interests: the patient’s, the surrounding community, and the people who have been grievously injured in the past by the patient.”

For Kidik who had to retire from her career as a police officer due to the severity of her injuries, the bill is changing the parameters of what she was promised when her attacker was found not guilty by mental defect and committed rather than sentenced to prison in August.

“I consider myself a strong person, not the same kind of strong as before May 17, 2018, but strong,” Kidik said. “But the idea of my offender being free, even for just a few hours, at the say of just one voice, unless you have endured what she has put me through, you will never know the kind of feeling that gives me.”