Jessica Short Credit: Contributed photo

The Public Health Committee nearly unanimously approved a bill Wednesday that many members called a first step in creating accountability and rectifying “disgusting” abuse by state employees of patients at Whiting Forensic Hospital in 2017.

But others said some provisions needed to be changed to protect victims while patients are outside the facility unsupervised for brief periods of time. 

“I understand that day passes are an important part of treatment, but there needs to be guardrails around that,” Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said. She voted in favor of the proposed bill.

For the uncle of nine-year-old Jessica Short, who was killed by a patient of Connecticut Valley Hospital in 1989, the vote didn’t reflect what he and his family want to see: A recognition that victims of people with serious mental illness need to have a voice in any proceedings that could lead to release.

“I think they recognized it, but they didn’t make any amendments,” said Andrew Reynolds whose niece Jessica was stabbed dozens of times by a CVH patient who had a pass to be out on the grounds in July 1989.

“They didn’t go into allowing victims to have a say,” Reynolds said. “They are taking away notifications to hearings for releases and the ability to provide a statement, with this bill we wouldn’t get any of that.”

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

SB 450 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 the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services 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. 

Other portions of the bill would 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. 

Legislators who crafted the bill want a committee to determine if the state’s Psychiatric Security Review Board, which determines if patients who are committed by the courts after a crime are fit to be released, is still needed and they want to place the responsibility for allowing patients short passes outside the facility to be in the hands of a Whiting administrator.

The portion of the bill that indicates the possibility of shutting down the PSRB and allowing one administrator to hand out day passes are opposed by Reynolds and other victims of heinous crimes whose assailants are now committed by a court to Whiting or Connecticut Valley Hospital following a verdict of innocent by reason of mental defect.

Reynold’s niece was attending a street fair in Middletown when she was repeatedly stabbed by a man who was a patient at CVH. At the time, the family had asked for Whiting and CVH to be revamped to provide better security but he has no idea what happened to the funding for the project, Reynolds said.

Since the PSRB must hold a hearing on each patient under their purview every two years, the family has continually been forced to relive the tragedy, Reynolds said. “We’re still going through it, it never ends,” he said. “And now our rights are being taken away.”

The family agrees with significant portions of the legislation that included safeguards to prevent the abuse of patients and a better facility to provide treatment.

“We are in support of most of the bill,” Reynolds said. “But victims’ rights are not included in this bill.”

Many lawmakers expressed concerns that the legislation would have to be revamped before final approval is granted.

After providing several examples from national cases when patients were given short passes and tragedies occurred – including the death of the patient, Linehan said she wanted “very specific language” on how passes are reviewed and approved “to ensure the public’s safety but also the public’s safety.”

Many other committee members agreed, including Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville, a physician who pointed out that Whiting and Connecticut Valley Hospital should be places of healing but that the public’s safety also needs to be addressed. “This is a work in progress,” said Petit, who also voted in favor of the bill.