Slain Conn. woman sought psychiatric care for son

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DEEP RIVER, Conn. (AP) - Margaret Rohner worried about her troubled adult son not taking his psychiatric medications and told a friend he needed to be hospitalized. But she was eager to see him over Christmas and, despite earlier reservations, agreed to let him come to her home to open presents and spend the night.

The day after Christmas, the 45-year-old Rohner was viciously attacked with a fireplace poker and knife, her eviscerated body left in the living room of her Deep River home. Her 23-year-old son, Robert O. Rankin, was charged with murder.

It was a tragic end for a woman who had spent years trying to find appropriate care for her son, known as Bobby. Friends say she shepherded him through numerous hospitalizations, changing medications and doctors, and various treatment programs for his mental illness, seemingly to no avail. All the while, friends said Rohner, a recent breast cancer survivor, would bear the brunt of Bobby’s angry rants, holding out hope that her only child’s condition would improve.

“He was in and out of that system for four years, and all we ended up with was a disaster, a tragedy,” Robert Rankin Jr., Rohner’s former husband and Bobby’s father, said in an interview with The Associated Press. Rankin said his son has been diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia.

The case highlights many of the issues state policymakers have been wrestling with in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who killed his mother before gunning down 20 first-graders and six educators on Dec. 14, 2012. One task force is compiling recommendations for legislators to consider regarding mental health services for patients ages 16 to 25. State Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, who has pushed for improved mental health services for children, said one challenge for young people with psychiatric problems is that once they become adults, treatment is generally voluntary and “medication compliance does become a problem.”

Another commission is looking into whether Lanza’s mother had difficulty accessing treatment services for her son, who was diagnosed with a form of autism that isn’t associated with violent behavior. On Friday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced that his new budget will include additional funding for mental health care, including residential and transitional services for young adults with serious mental illness, something Rohner was hoping to find for her son.

Bobby Rankin, who hasn’t entered a plea to the murder charge, is being held at Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown. His attorney, Dennis P. McMahon, said Bobby has serious psychological problems and he’s been advised not to visit him because of his fragile mental condition.

“He’s struggling with this now,” McMahon said. “I don’t think he understands what is happening.”

Several of Rohner’s friends and customers described her steadfast efforts to fight for the right treatment for her son and her dream to find him long-term, supportive housing.

Sally D’Aquila, who hired Rohner to clean her house and work on her garden, said Rohner would frequently be on the phone with doctors and social workers, trying to manage her son’s care. D’Aquila said Rohner “wanted so desperately for him to be normal, if there is such an animal.”

“I think she often felt there was nothing there. She was just on her own with no one to help her,” D’Aquila said. “That’s a pretty lonely place to be.”

Patricia Unan, a close friend, said Rohner expressed frustration to her Dec. 19 about Bobby’s deteriorating mental condition since he stopped taking his medications. Bobby for months had been receiving residential respite services offered at River Valley Services in Middletown, a program run by the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, according to Bobby’s father.

“She told me she’d pleaded with the person she spoke with (at River Valley Services) to hospitalize him and force meds because she recognized when he was headed for a break down from previous experiences,” Unan wrote in an email. “She said they told her they wanted to wait until after the holiday to address the situation.”

Mary Mason, a DMHAS spokeswoman, couldn’t confirm whether Bobby was a client, citing patient confidentiality laws. But she described the respite program as a voluntary alternative to a hospitalization, where temporary, supportive housing is provided. She said patients can check themselves out but need to notify staff when they’re leaving.

Bobby’s father picked him up Dec. 23, not wanting his son to spend the holiday away from family. The elder Rankin understood Rohner didn’t want Bobby to come to her house because he hadn’t been taking his medications, which often prompted outbursts directed at his mother. Robert Rankin Jr. said Bobby, who wore his hair closely cropped and a bushy beard, appeared distant, but he saw nothing out of the ordinary and the staff didn’t express any concerns. In hindsight, he doesn’t believe his son should have been allowed to go home.

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