Mentally and physically disabled man thrives out of jail

By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Published August 10, 2007

TAMPA - Robert C. Burrell has a home without bars.

After 432 days in jail on no criminal charges, followed by more bureaucratic delays, the mentally retarded and physically disabled man was placed Aug. 3 in a St. Petersburg nursing home.

Officials wouldn't identify the specific facility, citing patient confidentiality. But they said the 41-year-old man is thriving.

"He's happy, he's safe, he's doing well," said Kim Tennant, behavioral health administrator for Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services, which operates as Gulf Coast Community Care.

The nonprofit mental health agency stepped up last month after Hillsborough Circuit Judge Debra Behnke declared that Burrell didn't belong in jail.

He had been found incompetent to stand trial after getting arrested for breaking into a BMW in South Tampa. The charges were dropped two years later in June 2006 because his mental acuity didn't improve.

After Behnke ordered his release, multiple state and local agencies said they thought someone else was responsible for finding him a suitable placement.

Burrell, who had no family looking out for his welfare, spent about three weeks at St. Joseph's Hospital waiting for a permanent placement.

Gulf Coast Community Care quickly secured a spot in a skilled nursing home. But the Florida Agency for Persons with Disabilities didn't approve and it required more neurological testing, Tennant said.

She said everyone is satisfied with the new facility, though Burrell's caseworkers hope therapy will allow him to eventually move to a less restrictive environment.

Medicaid will pay for the nursing care, Tennant said.

The judge is happy with the results, but wants to start a mental health court so others don't also fall through the cracks.

"The question is, why couldn't this all have happened a year ago?" Behnke said. "We're going to tighten this whole thing up."