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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Inmate needed help, got more jail
Agencies fumble his placement in a mental health facility.
By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Published July 18, 2007
A judge declared Robert C. Burrell mentally retarded and incompetent to stand trial on burglary and petty theft charges.
TAMPA -- Police arrested Robert C. Burrell minutes after he broke into a blue BMW outside a South Tampa home. The owner found him drinking her soda and riffling through her CDs.
That was February 2004. A judge declared Burrell mentally retarded and incompetent to stand trial on burglary and petty theft charges.
He spent two years at a state hospital. Because he didn't get better, the charges were dropped in June 2006.
But Burrell, discharged from the hospital, remained in a Hillsborough County jail on a judge's orders awaiting placement in a facility that met his mental and physical needs.
The placement never came. Burrell languished in jail for 432 days, released Tuesday only after Hillsborough Circuit Judge Debra Behnke intervened and paused the man's fall through fissures in both the criminal justice and social services systems.
"Somebody's got to do something," Behnke said.
The case follows a fight that erupted in Pinellas County last fall, when a judge threatened the head of the Florida Department of Children and Families with fines and jail time if the agency didn't move mentally ill inmates to state hospitals more quickly.
Hillsborough officials blame Burrell's long wait on the state Agency for Persons with Disabilities, which has jurisdiction over inmates who are mentally retarded.
Agency officials said Tuesday that Burrell remains on their active client list but was supposed to be placed in a facility for long-term care by a jail employee with help from yet another state agency.
Everyone agrees that the Tampa man's case appears to be an anomaly.
Burrell, 41, is no stranger to incarceration. Between 1994 and 2004, Florida authorities arrested him more than a dozen times on charges including burglary and grand theft. He went to prison three times for a total of about 4 1/2 years.
Twenty days after he was released from prison in 2004, police accused him of burglarizing the BMW.
During his subsequent two-year stay in the Mentally Retarded Defendant Program in Chattahoochee, his physical and mental condition deteriorated to the point that he was no longer able to function independently, court records show.
An assessment last summer at the Falkenburg Road Jail found Burrell suffering from a progressive neurological disease and relying on a wheelchair to get around. His signature had become illegible, his speech unintelligible. He needed help using the toilet, bathing and eating.
Officials could find no family members to assist him. A psychological specialist with the Agency for Persons with Disabilities wrote in a Sept. 11, 2006, letter that Burrell required a skilled nursing facility rather than one of the agency's group homes.
At that point, the burden for Burrell's placement shifted away from the disabilities agency, said regional administrator Carl Littlefield. "The funding stream prevents us from making placements into a nursing home," Littlefield said. "It's not that we wouldn't. We couldn't."
He said Circuit Judge Robert Foster ordered the local CARES unit of the Florida Department of Elder Affairs to work with a jail employee to find placement instead of putting Burrell back on the streets.
A representative with Elder Affairs in Tallahassee said the department only determines what level of care an individual needs but does not make placements. She would not comment specifically on Burrell's case.
Jail employees and the Hillsborough Public Defender's Office did end up spending months looking for a suitable spot. But they said that shouldn't have been their job.
"The jail is the place of last resort," said Col. David Parrish, who runs the county jails. "Whenever nothing else works, they get dumped here."
Assistant Public Defender John Skye said his office assigned a social services employee to the case even though charges had been dropped and Burrell wasn't technically still a client.
Few facilities are available and willing to care for people like Burrell, Skye said. Also, no one could locate his birth certificate, which caused problems in obtaining funding even after a suitable facility was found.
"We couldn't get anybody to take responsibility so we attempted to do what the heck we could, and we just ran into one problem after another," Skye said.
Out of frustration, Burrell's public defender, Charalampos Demosthenous filed a motion last month asking a judge to hold the Agency for Persons with Disabilities in contempt of court if it did not take action on the case.
Judge steps in
Judge Behnke said the courts didn't even have jurisdiction over Burrell anymore because he had no charges pending against him. Someone should have sought civil commitment for him immediately after the charges were dropped, she said.
At a hearing Monday, she decided to take action anyway. She released Burrell from jail on his own recognizance and ordered that he be evaluated under Florida's Baker Act, figuring it was the quickest way to get him out of jail.
He will be held involuntarily at a mental health facility for 72 hours and evaluated by a doctor, who could then make a recommendation for treatment.
Behnke vowed to monitor the case closely. But she acknowledged Tuesday that there is no guarantee a placement will be available for Burrell when the 72 hours are up.
Attorney Violet Assaid, who directs the mental health division for the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office, said she is trying to prevent a similar situation from happening to one of her clients. The Agency for Persons with Disabilities wants to send a mentally retarded man in a state hospital back to the county jail. Assaid wants a judge to require the agency to secure long-term residential services for him first.
No one should sit in jail for more than a year waiting for a place to go, she said.
"That," Assaid said, "is just unconscionable to me."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.