Windham County Sheriff, Keith Clark. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)
Windham County Sheriff, Keith Clark. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)
Wednesday July 3, 2013

DUMMERSTON -- As it turns out, there is a connection between Dummerston's police protection and Vermont's mental-health system.

Asked to explain a big dip in patrols in Dummerston recently, Windham County Sheriff's Department representatives said they were occupied with a sudden rash of "patient watches."

Those are cases where Windham deputies are obligated to sit in hospitals for sometimes-lengthy periods with patients who have mental-health issues. Sheriff Keith Clark said the schedule for such duties fluctuates, sometimes leaving his department short-staffed.

"We schedule people for those towns, but we do all we can do with the resources we have," Clark said.

The issue arose when Dummerston officials noted that the town was billed for just three patrol hours in May. Dummerston's supplemental-patrol contract with the sheriff's department calls for approximately 18.5 hours monthly at a rate of $43 per hour.

"When we sign a contract, we think that we're going to get more than three hours of coverage in a month," Selectboard Chairman Zeke Goodband said at a recent meeting.

"It seems like we're getting not what we expected," Goodband added.

Sheriff's department Cpl. Dana Shepard pointed to a state system in which deputies have become a "Band-Aid" due to a lack of beds in mental-health facilities.

"Because if there's no bed for a patient, they have to go somewhere," Shepard told the Selectboard.


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That "somewhere," officials said, often is a hospital room. It's been a chronic problem since the severe flooding of Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 forced the closure of the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury.

That left state officials scrambling, and those struggles continue, Gov. Peter Shumlin acknowledged when he visited Brattleboro Retreat in April.

"We all know that, right now, we're delivering mental-health services in a system that is literally flying by the seat of our pants," Shumlin said.

He was speaking at the dedication of the Retreat's new, 14-bed adult intensive unit designed for severely ill psychiatric patients who, in the past, likely would have been sent to the state hospital.

The state is making other efforts to boost Vermont's capacity for mental-health treatment. In January, the eight-bed Green Mountain Psychiatric Care Center opened in Morrisville.

And construction has begun on a new, 25-bed state psychiatric facility in Berlin.

But in the meantime, there are many patients with acute mental-health needs who have nowhere to go upon their initial diagnosis.

"There are not enough treatment beds for people that present in emergency rooms and are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others," Clark said.

That's where sheriff's departments come in. The state pays departments to send deputies who supervise patients in hospitals until a mental-health bed is free.

"We literally watch them," Clark said. "We sit with them. It's been as long as 15 days (for one patient), and it's 24 hours a day."

With two deputies scheduled for each patient, that eats up manpower quickly. And Clark said Windham deputies sometimes are summoned to other counties to fill a need for patient supervision.

Shepard said that most often happens in southern counties. But Clark added that his department has gone as far north as Morrisville.

Though a new contract with the state recently began, Clark does not cite that as the reason for a sudden increase in patient-watch duties. The number of such cases, he said, simply is unpredictable.

"There was just a significant demand on the system," Clark said. "Brattleboro has seen an increase, and Springfield has seen an increase."

The sheriff has added staff, in part to cover patient watches. And he believes Vermont sheriffs are "doing a great service for the state by doing this."

But it remains unclear whether the state's efforts to add mental-health beds will solve the problem.

"You use up a lot of resources, and you can't schedule for those," Clark said. "Our hope is that the need will dissipate once the new state hospital is open next May."

He added that he is finalizing a policy that will set up guidelines for deputies who are conducting patient watches. That policy was developed in conjunction with state officials.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.