By Ed Runyan
Shortly after a magistrate in Warren Municipal Court agreed to order a competency evaluation Thursday for a 30-year-old woman arrested 25 times since 2001, Warren Prosecutor Traci Mendenhall acknowledged her job frequently is more like being a social worker than a prosecutor.
Mendenhall said Stephanie Romeo, locked up for purportedly assaulting deputy sheriffs last week at Trumbull County’s Department of Job and Family Services, is an example of the type of social problem the police department and prosecutors constantly must address.
“Every day, I’m a social worker,” Mendenhall said.
Romeo, originally from Liberty but now of Warren, has been charged with more than 100 criminal offenses since 2001 in Warren, Niles, Liberty, Weathersfield and Girard.
Most of the time, her reported offenses follow a similar pattern — trespassing, making threats, profanity, sometimes physical violence and spitting.
Police reports say she’s thrown things at people, threatened to kill her 72-year-old grandmother, carried a concealed steak knife and repeatedly behaved violently toward police.
She was evaluated in 2005 to determine whether her mental-health issues should prevent her from standing trial in Warren Municipal Court. The record doesn’t indicate what the evaluation showed. Her charged was reduced, and she was released.
Mendenhall says it would be fairly easy for her to bind over a case such as Romeo’s to a grand jury for possible felony charges, but that’s not the answer. A grand jury will refuse to indict, and she’ll be released.
Phillip Arbie, the defense attorney who represented Romeo on Thursday, said Romeo and many other clients need a type of help that society doesn’t seem willing to give.
“When is society going to step up to the plate and take care of people with mental-health problems instead of putting them in jail?” he said.
“This is one of those cases that is extremely typical of what we are left with when there are no mental-health facilities,” Mendenhall said, adding that the problem doesn’t have any easy answers.
Another young man with mental-health issues was in court Thursday with a similarly difficult problem.
The man said he had gotten into someone else’s semi truck to get warm and had no intention of stealing it.
He told Magistrate Dan Gerin he didn’t want to go back to the Trumbull County Jail because he’s not able to smoke or drink coffee there.
Mendenhall and Gerin agreed to keep him in jail another day to attempt to find his caseworker and try to find out what type of care he needs.
In court, he told Gerin he’d rather “sleep in the snow in the nude than go to jail.”
“Generally, we punish bad behavior” as a deterrent, Mendenhall said, but “You can’t deter a mentally ill person.”
“There is something we can do — put them in the county jail, but that’s not a fix. That’s a Band-Aid,” Mendenhall said.
People sometimes think that someone with mental-health problems can get “straightened out” in jail, but she’s learned the jail is unable to dispense many of the drugs mentally ill patients are supposed to take, Mendenhall said.
Furthermore, the jail is frequently unable to track down a caseworker to learn what medications the patient is supposed to have.
Many of the people she sees in Warren Municipal Court are there because of mental-health issues, failing to take their medication for it, using other drugs to alleviate mental-health problems, and getting into trouble.
The evaluation being carried out on Romeo is expensive, and so is the short-term treatment that the court could order at NorthCoast Behavioral Healthcare, so the court orders such evaluation and treatment “sparingly,” Mendenhall said.
Though people are focused on gun control in the Newtown, Conn., massacre, Mendenhall said she’s focused more on the mental-health issues involved.
“Connecticut is not about gun control. It’s about mental-health issues,” she said.