Exposé: Northern Township Beset by Escaping Mental Patients ({{commentsTotal}})

Source: Photo: ERR

A long-term nursing care facility in the northern coastal village of Valkla, in the process of being transformed into a centre for involuntarily committed psychiatric patients, is causing problems for the community due to insufficient security, according to a segment on ETV's Pealtnägija.

All through summer, the police received 16-18 calls a month about escapees, and at least seven criminal cases involving wards of the institution have been launched. Villagers and nursing home staff have fallen victim to beatings, thefts and burglaries.

The local constabulary told ETV that the facility is their biggest "employer." "About half of the [16-18] cases involved aggressive clients where both police and ambulance are called," said the constable of nearby Kuusalu, Kaisa Kajo.

The director of the facility, Toomas Merilai, said he agreed with the assessment that the problem was out of hand. "I hope that it will get better now that Pealtnägija is reporting it. We have done everything we can, made proposals to the government. We are in trouble here."

Valkla Kodu has been operating in the township for over 50 years. There have always been problem patients, but the crisis was sparked by the fact that in the last 18 months, AS Hoolekandeteenused has been starting to convert the home into a different kind of facility.

"To put it plainly, the target group is people who due to their illness can pose a threat to others but haven't yet committed a crime," said AS Hoolekandeteenused director Maarja Mändmaa.

She distinguished the clients from involuntarily committed mental patients, such as at another facility at Jämejala.

Still, of the 202 residents of Valkla Kodu, 94 are there under a court order. The people with restricted freedom live in the third building of the complex. The only security measures are locked doors, reinforced glass and window bars on the upper story. The first two stories are for schizophrenics and other mentally ill, the third story is for mentally disabled people.

The average time a patient spends in preventive involuntary commitment is two or three years, says Merilai, but there are two males who have been there for 17 years. AS Hoolekandeteenused plans to transform Valkla into a center where there would be only involuntarily committed patients - 100 of them.

Merilai says the home is logistically the best solution for such patients, as Valkla is in Harju County, the capital region where much of Estonia's population is centered. But Merilai said he is not capable of keeping the new, "more complicated" patients inside the facility and almost all of the villagers have tales to tell.

The patients, he said, usually flee during walks, when there is one minder accompanying eight patients. Often the chaperone is a woman. "The young guys jump over the fence and they're off. The minder can't chase them down, even if she could, because the rest would be stranded," says Merilai.

"We pick up the phone, call the police, [telling them] that there has been an unauthorised departure and we work with them as much as possible, track [the escapees] down ourselves as much as possible. Often we find them nearby, but many times we don't and the police brings them back.

Mid-August saw a more serious episode when an involuntarily committed patient who is deaf-mute took off and ended up entering a forest farm three kilometers away.

"The family has three children, a mother, father and the mother's brother lives with them. The brother-in-law and the youngest child were home at the time. The person came into the room, gave the brother-in-law a beating without saying a word, took computer, money and a mobile telephone from the child….. It was awful that a child was involved in that incident," said Piret Peri, who runs a holiday establishment nearby, Valkla Rand.

From May to September, the same individual escaped nine times, according to AS Hooldekodu director Maarja Mändmaa.

That August incident was the last straw for locals. Compounding matters, they only learned at that point about the operator's plans for a different patient profile at Valkla Kodu. Two public meetings are planned in the days and weeks ahead to brief officials and locals on the topic.

Mändmaa and Merilai say the Valkla incidents point to a systemic problem. Too many people are placed in special care facilities in Estonia, many of them do not require to be in locked wards. And different types of patients - old people with dementia, young mentally disabled patients - are grouped together. And money and resources for managing all of them are scarce.

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