BRATTLEBORO — In school he was a standout running back and later as an adult, he wrote and illustrated a children’s book. But today, Misbah Abdul-Kareem, 38, is in and out of jail, wandering around town and rummaging through people’s cars and their houses.
“His behavior is unpredictable; he’s a danger to others,” wrote MaryDiane Baker, whose house on Chase Street Misbah entered in the middle of the night on Dec. 8, 2022, in a letter to the Windham County State’s Attorney’s Office. “There’s no way to know what he might do next. ... [H]e’s also a danger to himself — some day he’ll come to harm from an understandably frightened homeowner or renter. If that resident hurts or kills Misbah, accidentally or purposely, the fallout for both would be awful.”
Abdul-Kareem was released from jail on March 15 and placed into the care of Pathways Vermont, which provides support services to people struggling with homelessness and their mental health.
He has more than 80 charges pending, stretching back to 2019, most of them minor incidents including disorderly conduct, trespassing, theft, and violating the conditions of his release. Late last year he was deemed incompetent to stand trial.
“I expect if I approve this order, I’ll be seeing [Abdul-Kareem] for a new charge within the next 10 days,” said Windham Superior Court Judge Katherine Hayes during the March 15 hearing. “I’ll be shocked if that’s not the case.”
Less than a day later, according to information from the Brattleboro Police Department, Abdul-Kareem broke into a Brattleboro home. Following a short search, Abdul-Kareem was taken into custody and appeared back in court on Monday and Tuesday.
Abdul-Kareem’s mother, Aiyana BlackHawk, who now lives in Boston, said the youngest of her six children has struggled with his mental health since he was 19.
“In 2009, something happened,” said BlackHawk. “He was in college and had a psychotic break.”
At home, Misbah barricaded his door and wouldn’t let people in.
In 2010, Misbah, apparently suffering from paranoia, she said, jumped from a moving car on Interstate 89 and suffered a brain injury.
As a youth, Misbah had been a good student and a very good athlete, said BlackHawk, and was a member of basketball and football teams that won state championships for Burlington.
“His intention was to become an art education teacher,” said BlackHawk.
Misbah was raised by BlackHawk, a single mother, who moved to Vermont after stops in California, New York, and Virginia. He attended Burlington schools from 5th to 10th grade, when he transferred to Worcester Academy in Massachusetts, which two of his brothers had also attended.
BlackHawk, who now lives in Boston, said education was a very important in her life and the lives of her children. Four have college degrees and one went into business on his own, but Misbah’s college career got shortcircuited by his mental illness.
BlackHawk, who has a Master’s degree in counseling psychology, said the family has tried to help Misbah over the years.
“We can’t give Misbah the help he needs,” she said, adding that it’s inappropriate for a family member to be a therapist. “As much as we love Misbah, we are not equipped to help him. Even me, as a retired mental health professional. He is not my client. He is my son. And there are many things that I can speak to him about. But doing anything about it, helping him and affecting any change, is out of my hands.”
BlackHawk said she has spoken with representatives from the Vermont Department of Mental Health and the Vermont Attorney General’s Office and “They have their excuses.”
“I think they’ve dropped the ball,” said BlackHawk. “There are many people living with mental illness that are not being treated properly. There are a lot of Misbahs out there.”
“My family has been very concerned for Misbah’s well-being,” wrote Oak Street resident Heather Humphrey-Leclaire in a letter to the Windham County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Last year, on a cold night in late fall, she wrote, Misbah was wandering the neighborhood, not dressed for the weather.
“He had slept in my car and told me plaintively that he was ‘So cold, so cold,’” she wrote. “It seems clear that he cannot make decisions based on probable consequences, including weather and being caught inside other people’s properties. Misbah needs long-term, compassionate, residential care ... He does not deserve to be treated as a criminal just because we don’t have the infrastructure to provide him with a more appropriate bed.”
In her own letter, Baker, who lives with her husband, Calvin Dame, and her 90-year-old mother, Rose Baker, agreed.
“Misbah needs care and is repeatedly being denied it, so he’s ‘flushed’ back to the streets,” she wrote.
BlackHawk said she has been dismayed by comments on social media, posted by people who don’t know her son.
“Misbah is a kind-hearted person. He loves everybody. I hope that he can get into treatment and that he can succeed in the treatment and he can be stabilized and he can be a good portion of himself.”