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Prosecutors tried to keep woman in mental care before Target stabbing

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Montgomery County prosecutors tried to prevent a state psychiatric hospital from releasing a schizophrenic woman, stating she remained a "danger to others and herself because of her mental illness," months before she was charged with stabbing a person Tuesday outside a Target store in Lanham.

"We just thought she was dangerous," county State's Attorney John McCarthy said Wednesday. "I think there are a number of us around the state of Maryland who are concerned with what has happened with these conditional releases."

From 2005 through August, Antoinette C. Starks, 55, resided at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital, Maryland's psychiatric facility for violent offenders, after she was arrested on charges of stabbing two women at a Nordstrom department store in Bethesda.

Ms. Starks was granted release from the hospital Aug. 11 under several conditions, including the understanding that she reside in a residential treatment facility in Lanham, participate in biweekly sessions with her psychiatrist and take her prescribed medication, according to records filed in county Circuit Court.

On Tuesday, Prince George's County police said she attacked another woman with four knives outside of the Target store. She is now charged with first- and second-degree attempted murder. Ms. Starks was ordered held without bond in Prince George's County District Court.

The arrest, combined with the case of a man who was under the watch of Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) when arrested in March and charged in the slayings of two men in Olney, has Mr. McCarthy considering further review of the state's conditional release program.

"You're beginning to wonder what are the financial pressures for these hospitals to push people out the door," he said, questioning whether more funding is needed for mental health programs to ensure patients are properly vetted before they are released from custody.

However, DHMH officials said the rate of mental health patients arrested in connection with crimes after they are released from facilities is lower than that of the general population, in part because they are under more intense supervision.

"We have a quick trigger on re-hospitalization," said W. Lawrence Fitch, director of Forensic Services for the Mental Hygiene Administration. "The system is pretty tight and we have so few failures. We watch them closely and if anything is amiss, we get them back in."

About 750 mental health patients are on conditional release in Maryland, Mr. Fitch said. Each year, roughly 3 percent are re-arrested, though generally for low-level crimes. Between 15 percent and 20 percent are rehospitalized each year.

The "failure" of Ms. Starks has left hospital staff reeling, Mr. Fitch said. "Whoever worked with her is in shock because they thought she was doing so well," he said.

Upon Ms. Starks' admission to the hospital in 2005, she refused to speak with any of the staff for treatment for the first three months. She also held the belief that the police and FBI had followed and harassed her for more than 20 years and had a paranoid fear of white people, according to court documents.

However, by the time Ms. Starks requested a release hearing in 2010, records indicate, she was taking medication daily and exhibiting a good work ethic at the hospital.

She was residing at a group home run by Volunteers of America, in the 6700 block of Alexis Drive in Bowie, at the time of her arrest, according to police and court records. A representative said the organization could not confirm whether Ms. Starks was in its care at the time or talk about her case because of privacy concerns.

Mr. Fitch also said he could not comment on whether Ms. Starks exhibited any behavior that would have warranted re-hospitalization before her arrest.

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