Judge calls DOH officials on the carpet

Two top administrators of the state Department of Health’s Adult Mental Health Division appeared in a Hilo courtroom Tuesday to explain delays in performing a mental examination for a woman jailed several months for relatively minor offenses.

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Two top administrators of the state Department of Health’s Adult Mental Health Division appeared in a Hilo courtroom Tuesday to explain delays in performing a mental examination for a woman jailed several months for relatively minor offenses.

Hilo District Judge Barbara Takase ordered Dr. Michael Champion, the mental health division’s chief for courts and corrections, to show cause why he shouldn’t be held in contempt of court for the length of time it took to get a mental examination for 47-year-old Rosemary Aranug of Hilo.

“My concern, particularly, (in) this case was because Ms. Aranug was in custody since June and delays caused by the examiner’s inability to see her caused her to be (in jail) four months on petty misdemeanors,” Takase told Champion and his boss, Dr. Mark Fridovich, the state’s adult mental health chief, who accompanied Champion at the hearing.

Takase dismissed her order against Champion, but not before expressing her displeasure with AMHD and asking “alternative solutions” be found to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

Aranug was arrested June 28 for trespassing and contempt of court and was unable to post $400 bail. As petty misdemeanors, both offenses are punishable by up to 30 days in jail upon conviction. A mental health examination was ordered by Takase on June 30. The original date a hearing on the returns was July 22, but the court’s Adult Client Services Branch requested additional time on July 7, stating in a letter that 10 working days was not long enough to complete the process.

At the July 22 hearing, a continuance of Aranug’s case was granted because of a possible language barrier and a Yapese interpreter was requested.

Dr. Alex Lichton, a DOH forensic psychologist from Honolulu, was assigned to examine Aranug. He sent three letters to the court, on Aug. 20, Sept. 17 and Oct. 6, each requesting postponements of the exam for at least 30 days. The first two cited work backlogs, the third, vacation.

Meanwhile, Aranug remained in custody, and Dr. Frederic Manke, a DOH psychologist who supervises mental health services for East Hawaii courts, conducted the assessment of Aranug, although that isn’t normally a part of his duties. The court found Aranug unfit to proceed on Nov. 5 and she was transferred to the Hawaii State Hospital in Kaneohe, Oahu, the following day.

Fridovich told Takase one reason for delays is AMHD has a shortage of mental examiners, known as “state designates” to do the so-called “single-panel” assessments in the district courts. He noted a memorandum of agreement was reached to allow private, independent mental health practitioners to perform that function on Oahu.

“We learned late on Friday (Nov. 14) that the (agreement) will only apply to that district,” Fridovich said. “I went to the administrator of that district and pointed that out and he said he would look into the possibility of extending that (to the Neighbor Islands). So we are working through those issues.

“We think it would help, even if it only applies to Oahu, because it will permit us to divert our remaining resource (state designates) to address the delays or the need for evaluations in this district and the other neighbor island districts. So, either way, we want to finalize it. It’s taken longer than we would have hoped. We are hopeful that is the piece of the solution for … evaluation for court-ordered defendants.”

The judge told Fridovich and Champion she recently had another case with a delay similar to Aranug’s.

“A lot of the issues have to do with particular examiners who consistently have issues meeting the deadline,” Takase said. “… I understand the shortage of examiners, but the court doesn’t believe extended vacations is a reason to keep parties in jail based on the lack of examination and that’s what my concern was. And both times, that was the reason given. So I am concerned about the oversight of your existing examiners,” she said.

Takase told the DOH officials they are “always welcome to join us” at meetings of a multi-agency committee on mental health issues in East Hawaii’s courts.

Fridovich told the judge he and Champion “would be happy to meet with you or other members of the Judiciary … where without going into the particular interviewers, some of the specific issues can be discussed.”

Afterward, Fridovich said he didn’t know how widespread delays are in providing fitness exams to people jailed for minor offenses, adding, “We could try to get back to you with that information.”

Asked if other judges had called AMHD officials into court over examination delays, Fridovich replied, “It’s a first for me.”

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Aranug is scheduled for a status/placement hearing at 3 p.m. Dec. 23 via videoconference from the state mental hospital.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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